Sense8: Great Concept, Poor Content

Netflix_Sense8_promo_artI haven’t watched much of J. Michael Straczynski’s stuff. Actually, it’s just been Babylon 5. (Heh. “Just.”) Of course, Babylon 5 is enough to convince any sane geek that JMS, as he’s fondly known in order to avoid spelling Belarusian names, is a great storyteller. For the less-sane, he was one of the story writers on the MCU movie Thor, wrote several scripts for Murder, She Wrote (yes, I watched that show as a kid), and has a list of comic book writer credits quite literally longer than my arm unless you use a very small font size. (No, really, I pulled up his Wikipedia page and checked.) JMS is a powerful storyteller, and even a casual glance at his work history will show that his problems usually only arise when someone else is telling him how to write.

This leads me to assume that Sense8, which he worked on and produced with the Wachowskis through his company Studio JMS, is a prime example of why Straczynski is better when he’s unambiguously in charge. 

Sense8 is a contemporary SF thriller with superhero overtones, all stemming from a great premise. The previews hooked me. On a scale of 1 to 5, it should have been a 4 and could have been a 5. Instead, it’s a 2.

Once again, the Wachowskis have taken a great premise and completely tanked it by not paying attention to how stories work, what makes great characters, and why pacing and setup can never be replaced with twice as much exposition as necessary. There’s a reason why they keep leaning on their success with The Matrix, rather than any of their more recent endeavors.

The basic premise for this is that eight complete strangers around the world become telepathically linked, able to share each other’s knowledge, language, skills, emotions, and physical sensations. Because of that, for rather vague reasons, they are being hunted and must learn to control their abilities and work together in order to survive.

This being a Catholic blog, I’m going to lay out some of the content before getting into this further.

This show has a transexual character, Game of Thrones-level nudity and sex, mostly between two women (one of them born a man, both in the story and in real life), and between two men. Several of the characters wind up having trouble keeping their clothes on in this show, and the show likes demonstrating that “share physical sensations” thing in ways befitting a fourteen-year-old boy’s imagination. One of the characters is also a drug addict (though possibly the most well-adjusted, once you find out what her life has been like). Oh, and variations on the F-bomb are the favorite adjective of every other character, and no I’m not exaggerating.

If any of that is a deal-breaker, well, you don’t have to read the rest of this.

Still here? Okay.

I actually didn’t mind the homosexual characters. As things go, that was fine. One of my usual problems with homosexual characters is that the entertainment industry tries to treat them as some sort of different kind of human being, and must act a certain way. Instead, they were portrayed as pretty normal, inasmuch as having a telepathic hive-mind makes one normal. Actually, the two male homosexuals were quite enjoyable characters, and I grew to like them as much as I can like any rampantly extramarital sexual relationship portrayed in a story.

(And for the non-Catholics in the audience who want to start talking about how we’re anti-gay: sex between two men or two women is exactly the same as sex between one man and one woman who are not married. No difference. Gay sex isn’t somehow more sinful than straight unmarried sex. Got that? Cool. Moving on.)

And to be honest, this was the best portrayal of a transexual character I’ve seen, and the difficulties that real-life trans go through when trying to fit in. What it failed at doing was showing any negative reaction as anything more than an obstacle to be rejected out of hand, right down to telling St. Thomas Aquinas to go do something anatomically impossible. (No, I’m not making that up, they went for an Aquinas reference in a shoehorned-in message-fic scene.)

Instead, the thing that bugged me the most about the sex was just . . . hello? Can we get back to the freaking plot here? It’s bad enough that things are already happening far too slowly and without any narrative structure. If I’m checking my email during your show, something’s gone wrong. Let’s not compound it by extending scenes by an extra two minutes so we can show an extended make-out session that isn’t even presented in an artistic manner. When Game of freaking Thrones is closer to a Michelangelo-style of artistic nudity than you are, you’re doing it wrong.

(What, you think Catholics just object to nudity and sex? Hey, where do you think we get those stereotypical large families? Trust me, we love sex. We just also like it to be beautiful and shown in context. Nudity and sexuality are not bad things, and they’re not the only things.)

Now, there were a few moments where the sexual content was offensive, but it was because the characters would pause to deliver speeches on sexual politics. As I’ve written about on my Novel Ninja blog, message fic limits your audience even when it’s stuff they agree with. (Heck, one of my editing credits is for a Catholic message fic story, which is a good story but really only enjoyable by the choir. Even then, the author didn’t go on for pages about how Catholicism is awesome and everyone should be pro-life — and there were characters presenting both sides.)

Of course, since the two main such scenes were both direct Catholic insults, I suppose I have a reason to dislike them beyond their lack of artistic subtlety.

But the biggest issue for me is just the long, drawn-out nature of the story and the complete disregard of narrative structure. Maybe it’s just that I’m an editor by trade, but the lack of plot beats, setup, and a lopsided climax was just disappointing, even if I hadn’t gone in expecting a story told by the guy who brought us Babylon 5.

Now, I know that JMS and the Wachowskis were deliberately going in and taking advantage of the Netflix binge-watching format to shake off the enforced TV structure. Writing for direct web release means you don’t have to break for commercials, you don’t need to make that break with a hook to keep the audience interested all through whatever stupid Geico ad is airing this week, and you don’t have to have each episode fit an exact 43-and-a-half-minute total length. That’s a good thing. Daredevil proved it.

The difference, though, is that Daredevil took that and discarded what did not need to be there now that they weren’t limited to fitting around commercial breaks, and kept what did need to be there in order to tell a good story. Then they ran with it, pulling out the best of TV and movie techniques in order to turn hour-length episodes into something rivaling a blockbuster film.

The Wachowskis (because this show resembles a Jupiter Ascending writing style far more than Babylon 5, so I’m going to assume it’s their show from now on) took the new format and said “Hey, now we don’t have to use any of that boring plot structure! We can be artistic!”

Facepalm Elrond


Look, narrative structure is there for a reason. Things in real life happen in a crazy order, but that’s real life. Fiction has the burden of needing to make sense.

That means that if you introduce an element to a story and it seems to be significant, the audience expects it to remain significant. Fail to do that, and the audience is disappointed. You’ve broken a promise.

Likewise, if you suddenly introduce something toward the end, it should have been set up beforehand. If it was important all this time, then it was worth showing. That doesn’t mean you have to be obvious; but the audience should be able to realize “Oh, man, that makes total sense!” instead of asking “Where the flip did that come from?”

Yes, that’s true even when you’re certain everyone will think it cool that your main character just randomly pulled a bazooka from the trunk of his car.

But, most of all, keeping to a basic structure lets you know when you’re about to go off the rails, like when your episodes seem to end at random “Oh, hey, this cut is roughly an hour, so let’s stop here” points. Or when your characters are just talking for the sake of talking rather than advancing the plot. Or when your character arcs are uneven, leaving your climax lopsided. Or when your overall 12-episode plot could really be told in 8 or less.

Structure is like the frame of a house. When it’s done, the house can look very different; but as it’s being built, well, there’s a reason why the wall studs should be no more than a foot apart, and skimping on that is only going to make your final product weaker. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like a melody or guitar riff; you can work off a building block and play around it, but when you mess with the central structure, it starts falling apart. (Yes, even with jazz; to be a good jazz player, you have to truly understand music — that’s why good jazz can feel so alive.)

I should have been tipped off by the title sequence. It’s a collage of images from around the world that doesn’t in any way touch on the themes, story, or even show any of the characters. Each image is there for just long enough to register before moving on to something different, with absolutely no sense or storytelling.

This story could have been told better as a four-part miniseries using two-hour blocks. Part One, they start becoming aware of what’s happening. Part Two, they’re now aware of each other as separate entities, and begin to benefit, but find out that this is all part of a larger event by the midpoint. Then, in Part Three, they have to work on their own plotlines while also helping each other and preparing to strike back. Finally, in the climactic Part Four, they coordinate a world-wide effort to gain control over their lives and deal a major blow to the anti-sensates.

Instead, what we got was a rambling mess that took four hours longer to start nosing into Part Four, then decided “Nah, let’s leave that for Season Two,” and backed off for an ending that made me go “Seriously? That’s it?” It was an episode ending, not a season finale.

Don’t get me wrong. The way they switch between bodies and skillsets is great. I like it, and it made for some very cool drama, and not just the fight scenes. But at the same time that they’re dealing with the Big Bad Evil Guys (BBEG, it’s a technical term), they’re also resolving three other arcs and deliberately not resolving another, while not even giving two characters (the trans and the cop) anything resembling a decent character arc, even though one (the cop) has to do an otherwise-epic rescue of the seventh character (the DJ drug-user), whose character arc is actually really strong but starts far too late in the series. All of this reduces the importance of the BBEG organization to something secondary, rather than clearly threatening them all.

They only got it right with one character, structure-wise: Sun Bak (who should really be Bak Sun — seriously, we can’t even get Korean name-order right?), whose plot arc is resolved and given a “to be continued in season two, after our epic season finale” in exactly the right way. Of course, her arc is extraordinarily weak, boiling down to “male oppression.” It would have been so easy to punch up without losing one bit of the “strong-willed woman trying to fit into a male-dominated honor-based society” plot. Sadly, her best moments are always when she’s helping the other sensates with their problems, usually by punching them.

Instead, the look at Korea basically comes off as “Look, here’s a backward society, let’s examine it with Western eyes and judge it according to our own rules.” Really? And Sun suffers from the typical Wachowski issue of being too serious about everything, too (along with Wolfgang and Will, and Nomi almost as much), which makes it even harder to treat her as a normal person even when trying to look past the American-centric viewpoint.

Which is sad, because they did a great job, both visually and with actors, at showing those different cultures all around the world. My favorite remains Capheus, a bus driver in Nairobi, who has an amazingly cheerful outlook on life despite living in a Kenyan slum. Seriously, if I had to be brain-linked to any of these characters, I’d pick Capheus, because that’s the personality I wish I had. And I think that his side of the show was the best portrayal of a foreign, non-European/US location without actually judging it by American standards (though I remain amused that such enlightened liberals would cast the black guy as the driver); meanwhile, Mexico and India got the same treatment as Korea, only for different reasons.

But that was solely due to the writing, because it seemed like there was a conscious effort to bring out modern American, and specifically leftist, values when it comes to sexuality, gender, and religion. While I don’t want to say the show is an SJW story, it’s painfully clear that the writers are of that vein, and any other view is presented as obviously wrong.

The weak writing and lack of understanding of other cultures extends to the dialog as well. Now, I’m not about to complain that the characters should all be speaking their native languages. That gets old fast, even for people like me (due to hearing problems) who always have captions on regardless. I don’t mind how we don’t have to sift through German, Icelandic, Spanish, Korean, Hindi, and Swahili. (Though a little more native dialog would be nice, rather than blink-and-miss it once-every-other-episode one-liners.) What shook me out of it was when the non-English speakers would be using clear English, and specifically American, idioms despite supposedly speaking in their native languages.

There was one interesting scene, though, that while obviously intended to be avant-garde I found to be accidentally beautiful. At one moment, as we approach the climax er, I mean, the end of the season, Riley (the DJ) is listening to her father playing piano in an orchestra, and all of the sensates are listening in. Suddenly, their minds flash back in turn to each of their births — an ability that had been described earlier by an older sensate — and we see each one being born in a beautiful musical sequence. Clip that out of the episode and it would be a great pro-life message . . . something I’d be surprised if the Wachowskis agreed with.

I could go on about various smaller issues that I have with the show, describing more questionable scenes and plot points, pointing out how to tighten it all up; but I think I really only need to mention one more thing to prove my point. Netflix users have rated this show an average of 4 out of 5 stars. Normally, if that many people have rated something like this so highly, there would be more buzz. Instead, I’ve seen barely anything beyond the critical reviews (hovering around 68% on Rotten Tomatoes) giving the characters faint praise and the writing even less. It’s almost like people want to like it but can’t, or they don’t want people to think that they didn’t like the show because they’re against transsexual rights or opposed to gay sex scenes.

Well, I definitely wanted to like it, and I watched the whole thing hoping that it would get better. Aside from some action sequences . . . not so much.

In fact, considering the final product, I’m afraid to know what wound up on the cutting room floor. If it’s that slow now, what got cut for time? Five-minute navel-gazing shower scenes?

This is one of the best urban science fiction drama concepts I’ve seen in my whole life. It could easily have knocked it out of the park. It was ambitious but it could have worked. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to start writing a counter-proposal to say “This is how it should have been done!”

I’m really glad this came out after we got Daredevil, because it makes for a great comparison — but also because the disappointments of Sense8 won’t have a chance to make people say “See, this is why web-based television will never work.” Daredevil proved that great stories can be told in new formats. Sense8 proved that a new format doesn’t mean a great story, and that there will always be a hunger for great storytellers.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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3 Responses to Sense8: Great Concept, Poor Content

  1. Andy Hauge says:

    Bummer. The concept sounds really, really cool.


  2. In one way this sounds kind of ironic coming from JMS. The supposed story goes that when he was working on a spin-off series of Babylon 5 (Excalibur), the network wanted more sex in the show. He refused under the argument that a show should be carried by characterization and plot, not sex. He even went so far as to mock the request by having an interstellar (actually lives in space) alien get frisky with the spaceship the series was named for. (The Captain even says “If that thing leaves a mess on my hull…”) Then JMS said “there is the sex you asked for.” He finished the original 13 episodes (which I’ve seen). However, no more episodes were ordered.

    Anyhow, I was really open to the plot and then I heard about this. It just sounded a bit to much like JMS “selling out.”


  3. Pingback: JMS at SDCC, B5 to Follow | The Catholic Geeks

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