You thought you knew True Detective Season 2 and Sense8, but just wait till this amazing theory blows your mind and... oh god I can't do it. The truth is, this article uses True Detective and Sense8 as diametrically opposed products that say a little more about our consumption of TV stories than you might have thought!
It seems like a strange distinction to make. On the face of it, True Detective and Sense8 could not be more different. One is an ambitious and celebratory shot at high concept TV that's much closer to Heroes than anything else, while the other is one of the grittiest, most intentionally grim products to grace our screens. Going by the pilot episodes of each show's latest season, you can spot some bizarre similarities that truly expose the outlooks of each show's respective creators. Both these shows are having to prove their worth to a skeptical audience, but it's the values each one expresses that makes you realize they are two sides of the same coin.
Here's what blew my mind about the first episode of True Detective Season 2. Nic Pizzolatto and Justin Lin created a mode of viewing where each character's identity merges with the next, and I'm not even sure they meant it! There was something weird about the way that first episode was edited that suggested we were actually watching several incarnations of one split personality. Rachel McAdams decides to leave an area and head home? Cut to Taylor Kitsch arriving home. Colin Farrell gets in a car to drive somewhere? Cut to Vince Vaughn in a car arriving somewhere. When Paul, Ray and Ani gather together around the mysterious body at the end of the episode, we're supposed to feel characters coming together, but I feel as if I've been watching the same person the entire time.
Now I'm sure some members of the fandom will start giving this show the Fight Club treatment with their theories, though that trope does require characters to be distinct from one another. It just seems that, in an effort to create a consistent tone, True Detective Season 2 has created an all encompassing world-weariness that actually negates individuality, the exact thing Sense8 avoids!
Sense8 weaves incredibly disparate characters into a network of shared experiences that almost culminate in one identity. This should be alienating to the audience, what with a premise that's basically about the liquidation of humanity, but the Wachowskis avoid that by showing that melding as a source of power, not a loss of it. Ultimately, True Detective unites characters with uniform grimness, almost mocking the idea of individuality, while Sense8 exposes the links between us all while somehow celebrating the uniqueness to be found within it.
Take a look at the first episodes of True Detective Season 2 and Sense8. Both of them are essentially designed to establish the characters and the world they live in, with very little plot getting in the way. While Sense8 depicts its initial premise just barely encroaching on its character's lives, True Detective almost uses its first episode as permission for the series to happen in the first place. It's like Nic Pizzolatto is your nervous date, and he won't let you come back to his until he's quickly tidied his room and made everything look cool.
What you'll notice from the first episode of Sense8 is that everyone strangely has very little going on. Sure there's a diamond heist, and guy gets shot in the leg, but no one is plagued by inner turmoil, or suffering bouts of self-loathing. The characters are generally decent people, because the Wachowskis seem to know that "flawed and troubled" is not a prerequisite for "interesting". Think about it this way. How many potential friends have you turned away because their life didn't appear tragic enough?
While both these shows use their first episodes entirely to establish character, the biggest gulf between them is in their depiction of sex. Now I'm not saying one form of onscreen sexuality is always preferable to another, though they each say different things about characters, and a show's general view of love and sexual expression. When we first see the character of Nomi in Sense8, she's engaged in intense, explicit intercourse. It doesn't serve the plot, or say anything too deep about her character other than that she's capable of love and intimacy, but that's the tone the show wants. The first episode of Sense8 strives to show joy for joy's sake, so we have something to latch onto and care about later down the road.
In True Detective, sex is only a futile answer to an unsolvable problem. Almost every expression of sexual desire is shown to be a failing, a digression from an ideal these characters can't keep to, because they're just so flawed dammit! Sex can't be joyful, because most of these characters seem to have never felt joy in the first place. Their every action is in service to the grim and corrupted world of True Detective rather than to themselves. In fact, I could imagine them actually realizing that they're in a show a few episodes down the line. Actually wait. That would be fantastic!
Every show wants to be enjoyed, or at least admired, so instead of reading the interior logic or thematic coherency of fiction, sometimes it's useful simply to ask "what does this want me to feel?" True Detective and Sense8 are similar in that they both want you to see a reality united by one theme or worldview. That's about where the similarities end.
The Wachowskis seem bent on presenting a world filled by the inherent good of people, yet full of systems that bring about suffering and forge malice. Just look at the nurse in the first episode who wants to turn away the dying boy because of hospital policy, yet just can't bring herself to that kind of condemnation. True Detective on the other hand wants us to see the darkness in a world where even figures of justice who strive for good are tainted by despicable qualities inherent in human kind.
Sure, it's hard to read entire world views from stories that deal with borderline cartoony figures. Both these shows are painting in broad strokes, but only one of them seems to know it. The Wachowskis employ cliche and archetype, but only because they enjoy them. Nic Pizzolatto on the other hand seems to use cliche's as a fast track to the actual truth of humans that the rest of us just don't get!
Sense8 and True Detective are such warped versions of each other that they actually let us question our own viewing expectations. If we simply asked "what does this want me to feel?", perhaps creators would be equipped with a clearer idea of that they want to be. Does this mean that one day, we could see True Detective Season 3 involving Bollywood numbers and on-the-fly orgies? No... no it doesn't.