August 2, 2015: Warning: HUGE SPOILERS IN THIS POST. Having spent two posts bitching about Sense8‘s mistakes, I thought it might be time to explain why I think everybody should watch it on Netflix: because when it gets it right, THIS SHOW IS SO GOOD.
(SECOND THOUGHTS, May 14, 2017): Second season is even better, just great.) The premise for the show is simple: Eight people in eight different cities throughout the world discover that they are linked mentally so that they can see each other, have conversations with each other, even touch each other without ever being in the same place and–bonus for times of danger and stress– can share each other’s bodies for defense (and, it turns out, other things), which is good because they’re being hunted by an international organization that wants to lobotomize all of them, led by the ultra-creepy Whispers. So as a viewer, the contract I signed after the extremely confusing pilot was that I was going to watch these eight (aka the Cluster) meet each other, bond, and then defeat the despicable Whispers, and in the process get a cathartic hit of team-building and the-family-you-make joy. (Bonus I wasn’t expecting: Romance. Really good romances for everybody but Capheus and Sun, and really, he’s so full of light and she’s so full of sadness that I’m up for pairing the spares on this one, just to see her smile.)
BUT the writers’ idea of the contract was providing the viewer with “a global story told on a planetary scale about human transcendence and what it ultimately means to be human in a contemporary society.” I got the “global story” from the pilot, and that’s a terrific part of this show, the whole one-world, brotherhood-of-man-and-woman bit, plus the visuals in this series are cinema-quality. “Planetary scale” is pretty much “global story” again. “Human transcendence and what it means to be human”? That’s theme, not story, a statement about the human condition, not protagonist vs antagonist. And that’s where Sense8 trips, over and over again–theme-mongering, characters discussing Ideas, and Jonas as the Exposition Fairy–trying to fulfill a contract that steps on story. Where Sense8 excels is when it breaks free and goes back to the protagonist vs antagonist scenes that embody that theme, characters who are experiencing supernatural visions, conversations, and eventually physical intimacy with people who aren’t the same room with them, most of them not in the same country, and who must learn to accept each other or be hunted and killed by that bastard Whispers, not to mention all the individual antagonists they have to deal with. When it embodies its theme in character and conflict, Sense8 becomes not only groundbreaking TV, but really great storytelling.
The reason that Wolfgang’s sections are always so strong is because Wolfgang does not talk. He does. He doesn’t say, “My father was an abusive son of a bitch,” he pees on his grave. The combination of infodump, backstory, theme-mongering, and Angelika showing up in pretentious cameos really kneecaps the pilot. The sequence of Wolfgang cracking the safe and Will saving the gunshot kid is an excellent example of Sense8 doing it right. And in Season Two, having finally powered through a lot of this stuff, the infodump is much less and the plotting much better. It’s STILL mostly character and not plot, but with these characters, that’s great.
MAJOR SPOILERS FROM NOW ON. Listen, really, you should watch this show without spoilers. You’ll have soldier through the first two episodes, but then it takes off, and it’s so worth it. You’re still gonna read this and spoil the series, huh? Okay, on your head be it. BUT THIS IS A MISTAKE.
Episode 1: “Limbic Resonance” The title pretty much sums up this episode: a lot of stuff we don’t understand about a concept we don’t care about. Nice bit at the end with Riley and Will, the first of the cluster to actually speak to each other. Otherwise, meh. You know what, don’t watch the pilot. Here’s a recap, organized for clarity: Daryl Hannah (Angel) gives mental birth to the connection of the eight who will be known as the Cluster, coached by Naveen Andrews (Jonas) before Terrance Mann (Whispers) comes in to take her prisoner. Daryl shoots herself, which, given Whispers’ creepiness, was probably the smartest thing she could do. And then the cluster is introduced (in order of first appearance):
• Will Gorski: American cop in Chicago, archetypal hero. Best friend is his cop partner Diego. Finds a kid gangbanger shot, takes him to the ER over his partner’s objections and then forces the ER to help the kid which saves his life. Really, he’s a Hero. The only thing saving this character from complete stereotype is Brian J. Singer, who sells the hell out of Will as your basic good guy who doesn’t realize he’s really Gary Cooper. The first connection he establishes with anyone in the Cluster is with Riley at the end of episode one.
• Riley Blue: Icelandic DG in London, meets drug dealer Nyx through her boyfriend, Jax, who, unbeknownst to Riley, is a murderous jerk. The first connection she establishes is with Will at the end of episode one, when they become the first of the Cluster to actually speak to each other, realizing that they’re in different cities and that something Really Strange is going on. Tuppence Middleton drew the thankless task of playing the Damaged Flower plus the Girl to Will’s Hero, and she still manages to make Riley likable and sympathetic.
• Lito Rodriguez: Spanish action star in Mexico City; in the closet and tormented by it (looks at his picture and says, “You’re a liar”), in a great relationship with Hernando (smart, funny, patient, basically a dream guy) who won’t show up until Episode Two. Terrific funny-but-real performance from Miguel Ángel Silvestre.
• Sun Bak: Korean VP and CFO in her father’s company in Seoul, patronized by her dickhead brother, ducking calls from the bank while she stares at a red folder. The closest she comes to a connection in the first episode is when a chicken from Capheus’s bus lands on her desk and then disappears. Beautifully underplayed by Bae Doona, showing the heaving mass of rage that’s under Sun’s placid, obedient exterior.
• Kala Dandekar: Sweet, innocent, Indian pharmacist living with her loving and omnipresent family in Mumbai. Worships Ganesh to whom she tells her secret: she’s engaged to a wonderful man her family loves but she doesn’t. The only connection she establishes in the first episode is hearing the thunder at the funeral Wolfgang is attending. Another thankless Girl role, saved by another good actress, Tina Desai, who makes Kala fun and bright and even sensual under her Good Girl exterior.
• Wolfgang Bogdanow: German thief in Berlin. Runs a locksmith shop with his best friend Felix. Son of a criminal family, harassed by his asshole cousin, Steiner, at his grandfather’s funeral; sent to pay his respects to his dead father, he pees on Dad’s grave. Later he and Felix break into diamond merchant’s high-tech building and Wolfgang cracks the safe his father couldn’t. BIG father issues, but good thief. They get out with the diamonds just before Steiner arrives. Flashbacks show Wolfgang’s abusive father; definitely the kind of guy who deserves his grave peed on. Big mystery to the family: Who killed Dad? Yeah, Wolfgang gets a LOT of story real estate in the first episode, which is okay, Wolfgang is fun to watch because he doesn’t talk much, just does things, and because he’s under-played by Max Riemelt, who lets all of Wolfgang’s passion simmer quietly under his deadpan exterior.
• Capheus: Kenyan bus owner/driver with his partner Jela in Nairobi. His loving mother is dying of AIDS and his Van Damme bus is losing customers to the rival Bat Van. Capheus doesn’t do much in the first episode, but Ami Ameen who plays him embues him with such joy and light that you don’t care; you just want to see him smile. His only connection to any of the others in the first episode is that chicken on Sun’s desk.
• Nomi Marks: American blogger/hacker living in SF with her lover, Amanita. Except you don’t know she’s a hacker yet, so she’s just a blogger who has sex with Amanita, who does all the heavy lifting in the relationship. It’s a terrible intro to a strong character, but Jamie Clayton does what she can, really coming into her own in Episode Three. Amanita is amazing from the beginning, but then Freema Agyeman used to travel with the Doctor, so she’s used to the weird.
By the end of Episode 1, all of the Cluster have caught glimpses of Angel, the woman who gave birth to their connection in the first scene, and most of them have migraines as their brains adapt to it. None of them connect until the end when Riley, drugged out on Nyx’s Limbic Resonance Hash, sees Will, first through the window of his squad car in Chicago and then in the derelict church where Angel killed herself. Riley and Will are the first to speak, but they’re interrupted when Riley’s boyfriend and his pal try to rob Nyx and gunfire ensues, spattering Riley with blood. End of first episode. Yeah, that was a little abrupt.
(SECOND THOUGHTS: This could have been a marvelous pilot but they got sandbagged by back story and Theme. It’s the equivalent of the first three chapters that everybody has to cut from their first drafts. There’s excellent stuff in here, but I basically agree with my original opinion: self-indulgent writing too focused on Big Ideas when they have Great Characters they should be concentrating on instead..)
Episode 2: “I Am Also a We” This title sounds like something Whispers would say before he ordered lobotomies. Or maybe Yoda, right after he says, “There is no try.” So ignore the title, there’s some good stuff in Episode 2, which means you should watch it. No? Fine, but watch the rest of the series.
Here’s Episode 2: Nomi ends up in the hospital with her Mother From Hell, who has barred Amanita from the room. Enter Dr. Metzger; we hate him right away, but not as much as we hate Nomi’s mother. Yet. Metzger is German for “butcher;” we’re building a Chekhov’s armory here. Metzger tells Nomi there’s something terrible wrong with her brain and she needs aggressive surgery or she’ll start having hallucinations and die. Then he locks her in her hospital room and forces medication on her. Nomi gets a visit from Jonas, who is about as creepy as Metzger and Whispers; he gives her the good news that she’s going to be lobotomized unless she escapes. Amanita gets a phone call through and promises to rescue her. Amanita is wonderful. (SECOND THOUGHTS: Two years later, Amanita is even more wonderful, Mom is still a bitch, and Whispers is still a sadistic creep, which makes it so much more satisfying when Will terrifies him. Props to Terence Mann for being Evil Incarnate.)
Kala’s at a party celebrating her imminent wedding; her fiance starts a Bollywood dance. Fun, but no conflict, and also badly timed because Nomi’s back in SF under threat of a lobotomy. Meanwhile Wolfgang is naked, having sex with a woman we won’t see again in the series. Kala’s at the party buffet table full of Indian food, talking to her sister about her fiancé and feeling overheated for some reason. Wolfgang is having a cigarette with the woman we’re not going to see again and tells her he has a craving for Indian food. Kala’s future father-in-law tells her restauranteur father that he doesn’t like Indian food. Kala’s fiancé, Raj, smooths things over, and takes her outside to say goodnight. The woman we won’t be seeing again is now with Wolfgang at an Indian restaurant in Berlin; she asks if she’ll see Wolfgang again. He says he’s not looking for a relationship, and then he sees Kala for the first time, walking past him in the Indian restaurant in Berlin in her elaborate party dress in Mumbai before she disappears. Back in Mumbai, Kala is alone with her fiancé who’s being incredibly sweet and who kisses her for the first time before he says good night. Kala’s sweet and polite but not thrilled. Fun stuff here: the cutting back and forth between innocent, law-abiding Kala dressed to the teeth, and hardened criminal Wolfgang, mostly naked. Call it Chekhov’s foreplay: these two crazy kids have got to get together. (SECOND THOUGHTS: This is a great example of a Oh-No-Not-You relationship that forces both sides to change. It’s gonna take two years, though.)
Lito shows up with actress Daniella Velasquez at a premiere, being wonderful with the fans and with Daniella (who unbeknownst to her was chosen by Lito’s lover as his beard). After the premiere, Daniella makes a pass and Lito turns her down, which leaves her dumbfounded: men don’t turn her down. He goes home to Hernando, a great guy, funny, intelligent, and patient with drama king Lito. It’s a great scene between two men who clearly love each other; only problem is that Hernando would like to go to premieres instead of Daniella, but Lito’s locked himself in the closet for the sake of his career. Then Daniella shows up at Lito’s apartment with champagne and two glasses and photographers. Lito lets her in to get rid of the press, and Daniella barges upstairs to Lito’s bedroom to discover the real love of his life. First she’s surprised, then she’s thrilled, she loves gay porn, so she goes to get a third glass. Hernando says, “I think perhaps I misjudged Miss Velasquez.” It’s the beginning of a beautiful threesome. No, it really is. I love this relationship, and that’s a great, funny scene. (SECOND THOUGHTS: Best One True Threesome in the history of film, this just gets better and better.)
Riley goes back and washes the blood off her face (remember the shooting at the end of Episode One? try to keep up, okay?) as Will shaves in Chicago, and they see each other in their bathroom mirrors, Riley in her black bra and Will mostly naked; they have a moment. Then Will goes to work and finds out Jonas is a terrorist (not really, that’s the story Whispers is telling the cops). He goes to see his father and tells him he’s seeing things, and his dad tells him to shut up or he’ll get kicked off the force. Jonas tries to talk to Will, and is his usual creepy, elliptical, not-helpful self—“We all experience many births and deaths in our lives”–so Will tries to arrest him. which results in a car chase and a car crash. I blame Jonas for being dramatic instead of informative. Chekhov moment: Will says, “I’m still a cop, I can’t let you go.” Oh, Will, you have so much character arc ahead of you. Of course all of this stuff was intercut which was annoying. (SECOND THOUGHTS: Jonas was annoying then and in the second season is still annoying plus extra. My fave Jonas line? The last thing he says in Season Two: “Oh, fuck.” Finally, he’s brief and to the point.)
Also, where the hell were Sun and Capheus? Yes, I know it’s tough keeping eight protagonists plates spinning at the same time. That’s why you don’t do eight protagonists. Still worth it for the foreshadowing of Kala and Wolfgang, and for the deliriously funny Lito/Hernando/Daniella stuff. Also, Dr. Metzger needs to die, preferably taking Nomi’s mother with him. Okay, now go watch Three and Four and I’ll talk about them later this week because this is stuff I want to discuss and it’s lonely here, talking to myself. Also, the series hasn’t been renewed yet, so it needs eyes on it. So let’s meet back here Tuesday, and we’ll take apart Episode Three, “Smart Money’s On the Skinny Bitch” (GREAT TITLE), and Episode Four, “What’s Going On” (not a bad title until Wolfgang starts singing kareoke and then it’s a FABULOUS title). Go on, go watch Episodes Three and Four. They’re on Netflix. You’re gonna love them.
Final Second Thoughts May 14, 1017
I still love the way the characters are introduced, the links between them, introducing their antagonists for most of them. You really do attach to them immediately. And those links–Will in Chicago hearing Riley’s music in London; Kala in India hearing the storm in Wolfgang’s Berlin, Sun in Seoul getting Capheus’s chicken from Kenya on her desk–sets up a terrific expectation: we want these people to get together. The sex scene with Noni and Neets is still off-putting because it’s a lousy way to introduce a great relationship, but Lito’s movie scene screw-up is quintessential Lito, so I’ll give that one a pass, even though it would good to meet Hernando as soon as possible. Big thing: I love these characters. I’ll put up with a lot of confusion to see these people. I can see why I hung around through these two extremely uneven episodes. The pay-off is worth it.