Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sense8: Ambition and Altruism

I finished watching the first season of Sense8 about a week and a half ago.  I've been thinking about what to say about it ever since.  I'm still not sure what to think about it.  It sounds cliché, but there's something about it that defies explanation.  Since we're talking about the creators of The Matrix, let me double down on clichés: I can't tell you what Sense8 is.  You must experience for yourself. 

The main cast (the eight sensates)
(I reviewed the first part of the season in an earlier post).

An Ambitious Narrative

Even people who hate the show agree that the one thing it does not lack is ambition.  It was filmed in nine locations on four continents.  It has eight main characters whose stories just barely intersect (at first).  It deals with gender and sexuality in a way rarely seen on TV, especially in science fiction shows (this fascinating article from io9 compares Sense8's treatment of gender to Philip K. Dick's treatment of other identity issues).  There is little hand holding for the audience.  The first season leaves a lot to be explained.  All this ambition can be a bit overwhelming.

Critics of the show have complained about alleged cheesiness of the dialogue and that the story lines are hard to follow.  I didn't have any problems with the dialogue.  Maybe those critics are just too snooty, or maybe I was too busy putting in the effort to follow the stories to harp on the dialogue.  Or maybe I liked the characters too much!  This is one of the most character driven science fiction shows I've seen.  The whole season almost feels like character development for whatever's next, which is why Netflix owes us more seasons!

Following all eight story lines (or nine or ten, depending on how you're counting) isn't always easy.  You have to sit down, put away your digital devices, and watch attentively.  I suspect critics who complain that it was hard to follow were reading listicles or writing snotty reviews while they were watching it.

While tracking all the individual characters requires some attention, one of my few criticisms of the show is that the overarching narrative seems relatively simple.  Further discussion requires spoilers (see below).

Altruism: I am a We

As I noted before, the main theme of Sense8 is that we are all connected.  As they say, "I am a We."  This theme is dramatized through the idea of the sensates, who can sometimes share thoughts and feelings.  But this is more than just a fun show (although it is a fun show!).  It may seem that a cop in Chicago, a bus driver in Nairobi, and a chemist in Mumbai are living disparate, unconnected lives, a view supported by the picture of humans as isolated, atomic individuals that is perhaps further encouraged by certain political and economic forces.

Alternatively, Sense8 encourages us to think about our connections to each other and the rest of the world.  Buddhist ideas about dependent origination and inter-dependence come to mind: who we are is determined by causal factors in the world, and our actions have effects on the world around us.
The creators: The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski

But neither does Sense8 encourage a homogenization of differences.  (Would it really be altruism if we were all one big person?) The sensates are connected, but they are also a diverse lot, far more diverse than you see on most TV shows.  It's the kind of diversity that annoys the Sad Puppies.  Still, it's worth noting that the creators are white Americans (although Lana Wachowski is a transgender woman who reportedly drew on her own experiences when creating the character Nomi).  Whether the show succeeds in representing diversity without the lens of Americans' stereotypes about other countries is a good question (see a worthwhile critique here).  The show isn't perfect, but who else is even trying to do something like this?

The Spoilery Bits

Some have criticized the overtly sexual parts of the show.  Yes, there are sex scenes, including a psychic orgy in Episode 6 that I have to imagine 98% of humans will think is super hot no matter their sexual orientation.

Yeah, they went there
But even the sex scenes serve the theme of altruism and connectedness: they illustrate the sensates' connections to each other and their loved ones.

And what about the overarching narrative?  As it took shape in the last few episodes, I was a bit disappointed that it was basically The X-Men with more sex and less spandex.  I mean no disrespect to one of the few superhero franchises I kind of like, but it's been done.  Yeah, yeah, mutants... new phase of human evolution... hunted by unappreciative non-mutants... blah, blah...

But then I read this excellent piece, "8 Questions We Have about Sense8."  (This also explains why they all speak English among other mysteries).  From the article:
According to Straczynski, the theory behind the powers in Sense8 is that “we all began that way…but a mutation caused people to be born without that ability, and they became more effective and ruthless killers because killing’s easy when you feel nothing.”
This is actually quite novel.  It suggests that empathy and altruism are, after all, more natural for humans.  In a world hell bent on Hobbesian individualism and economists' enlightened self-interest, it's worth remembering that caring about others is in fact a natural part of what it means to be human.


  1. I'm a huge fan of TV & movies especially the Si-Fi. Nice article I will have to check this show out.

    1. Thanks for the comment! The show is really quite something, but you have to have a little patience and give it a chance. I feel like I may need to watch it again.