TV has been lying to us. It's been misguiding us for years, and we as an audience accepted a restricted means of storytelling all the while. Even prestige projects that get heralded as fingerlickingly good television have still abided by the idea that good TV comes purely from telling good stories. Your Sopranos, your Breaking Bads, your The Wires, even your Game of Thrones all sit the audience down to tell a good, surprising, authorial story. I'm not here to knock a good story. Narrative competence is vital to TV as an art form, but that exact idea has come to dominate the medium. Then along came Sense8.
Netflix to the rescue
I've always vocalized my skepticism in the Netflix model of broadcast, where entire seasons are put up ready to view all at once. It seems to cater to some unhealthy compulsions that come with binge-watching, and can ruin the flow a TV show that relies on with regular weekly broadcast. I was mourning the concepts of weekly reminders and water cooler moments before the likes of Orange Is the New Black even took off. What I needed was something that operated within the liquified narrative opportunities that Netflix provides, and Sense8 did just that. While the words "A Netflix Original Series" don't quite have the same mark of quality that the HBO sigil has, they do signify a sense of adventurousness, ambition, and faith in creators.
Sense8 and the Wachowskis
Netflix have clearly put their faith in the Wachowskis, green lighting a show that has huge cast, a premise that's vague for the first half of the season, and a compulsion to span not only a number of genres but also the actual Earth! You'd think with the box office disappointment of Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending that the work of Andy and Lana Wachowski would be a shaky place to put your money, but Netflix seem to understand that the Wachowskis have a love for cinema itself, and Sense8 is the perfect way for them to express that love. So what was the episode that made me realize Sense8 was such a special occurrence?
Smart Money's on the Skinny Bitch
In Episode 3, entitled "Smart Money's on the Skinny Bitch", a scene occurs where two characters each open some documents, and each have an emotional reaction to reading them. Sounds simple enough, but Sense8 goes the extra mile. The emotional closeness of Will Gorski and Sun Bak is expressed through the cinematography, which messes with the very space we're watching. Now of course, psychological and geographical displacement is part of the very pitch of the show, but this is one of the first moments that really melds what the characters are feeling in a way that isn't telegraphing a mystery.
This cohabitation of character and space comes to fruition later in the episode when the character Capheus has vital medicine for his mother robbed from him by street thugs. He decides to go after them in what seems like a suicide mission, but at the same time, Sun Bak is competing in a Tron-style MMA fight and Gorski is at a gun range. As the fight with the street gang ensues, Capheus assumes the identities of Gorski and Sun almost like power ups, and the Wachowskis shoot the action as if all three characters inhabit the same space. Narratively, it amounts to little more than "the good guy beats up the bad guys", but the scene plays out with such ease, showing that action does not have to be constricted to one location, viewpoint or state of mind. That's the kind of ambitious move that respects the audience in a way few shows have ever even considered.
While countless TV shows have employed interesting aesthetics, and even expressed themselves predominantly visually, it's Sense8 that truly plays with what can be done with cinema contained within an episodic structure. The Wachowskis seem to truly enjoy what they do, and they know that we enjoy watching them do it!
For my comparison of Sense8 and True Detective, you can click right here!