Sunday, June 7, 2015

Netflix Produces The Coolest, Smartest Work On Television With Sense8 Season 1!

The Good: Excellent character development, Good acting, Wonderful direction
The Bad: Initial pacing, Flashbacks
The Basics: Faith in J. Michael Straczynski (and the Wachowskis) is rewarded the longer Sense8 goes on, as its first season develops into something exceptionally cool!

Not long ago, my wife clued me into the forthcoming work by J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowski siblings. The Wachowskis have a remarkably mixed record with their creations - it seems like their unique creations are troublingly balanced by awkward adaptations; sure, they did amazing with Cloud Atlas (reviewed here!), but they also adapted Speed Racer (reviewed here!). At the other end of the spectrum is J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski works within other people's universes incredibly successfully - like his run on Wonder Woman (Volume 1 of Odyssey is reviewed here!) - and has more consistently created impressive works with brilliant concepts that only reach niche genre audiences. Straczynski's last major work, Jeremiah, was shitcanned after two seasons (the second is not even available on DVD yet . . . and, it turns out, was a loose adaptation, too). But Straczynski's works are smart and well-conceived, high-minded . . . and often completely misunderstood by production companies which want to make a buck off them. Sense8, the work that is bringing together the Wachowskis and Straczynski for a longer, larger, ongoing project has been released now on Netflix and the first season almost instantly reveals itself to be powerfully Straczynski-driven.

Rewatching Babylon 5 (reviewed here!) right in advance of Sense8, it is easy to see Straczynski's influence. There are the issues of privacy, psychic connections, Holocaust references, and the exceptionally important idea that a single person can change the world (which is what Babylon 5 was all about). Hell, in the teaser of the pilot episode of Sense8, the villain Whispers, is established and shot virtually identically to Bester, the adversarial psi-cop on Babylon 5! Sense8 is smart and it looks beautiful, which is exactly what one expects from a work directed by the Wachowskis. Those going into Sense8 expecting something as accessible as The Matrix (reviewed here!) and with such an instant "cool" factor are in for an unpleasant surprise.

From almost the first minute, Sense8 is complicated, slow and driven by a concept that takes a long time to reveal itself. It might have been created by J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowski siblings, but the writing is much more weighted to Straczynski, which means it is smart and requires a lot of faith to get through the build-up to trust that it is going somewhere and where it is going is worthwhile.

The first season of Sense8 is worthwhile (despite its problems), but without the celebrity of Straczynski and the Wachowski, it is virtually impossible to get to the point where it gets good. Fans of Babylon 5 will recognize that; J. Michael Straczynski created one of the most tedious first season's of television, but then alluded so heavily to it in the awesome seasons that followed, that most of the episodes became indispensable! Sense8 takes more than the first three of twelve episodes to build up to the point where the characters are established well-enough that viewers care about what happen to them.

The first season of Sense8 is about the discovery, not the hunt. That means, watching the first season of Sense8 is an exploration of the concept and the characters, more than truly running with the concept. So, that brings me to reviewing Sense8 Season 1 and reviews ultimately come down to helping people make a judgment about whether or not they should experience them. That brings me to the bottomline right off the bat:

If you're a Netflix subscriber (currently the only way to watch Sense8 Season 1), go to Sense8. Rather than reading anything about it, go to the "Trailers" and watch the first trailer for season 1 (there are three). The trailer is exceptionally well-made and it explains the concept of the show and reveals two or three awesome plot moments that make the concept explicit. Most of those moments come in the latter six episodes of the season, so viewers are waiting for the awesomeness through a lot of cerebral explanations. So, if you watch the trailer or trailers to Sense8 and think it looks interesting, cool, or like something you might like, watch the season. It gets there. Some trailers reveal too much or sell something different than the work they represent; the Sense8 trailer does not do that, but it shows some of the more accessible moments later in the first season.

The problem, I realized near the end of the second episode, was that the content up until that point (and a bit later) was not grabbing me. I tried to consider what it would be like to sit down without having seen the trailer and I almost instantly realized that I would not have cared. Sense8 is dense, clever and pays service to eight groups of characters (not just eight characters, but eight settings packed with characters), so despite teasing the idea of the show for much of the first season, it takes a long time to truly launch. In its first season, Sense8 does not give it all away and it is not particularly accessible (and I was looking forward to it and sold on the concept before I sat down to watch it!).

But the best strategy for those thinking about Sense8 is to watch the trailer and let it sell you (or not). If you like the trailer, commit - the show gets as good as the trailer!. If you don't like the trailer, don't waste your time - Sense8 is so much more complicated and clever and powerful than the trailer makes it look.

The first season of Sense8 is spread out throughout the world. Opening in Chicago, a blonde woman (Angelica) takes her own life, much to the shock of several people around the world who do not know who she is or where she is, but witness the event in their dreams (or waking dreams). A beat cop in Chicago dreams the event, but it is far more potent than any dream he has ever had before and he is convinced it is real. After he and his partner rescue a gunshot victim in the hood, Will drives by the abandoned church in which the suicide occurred and he becomes convinced the death actually happened (when he finds things like a box of drugs where he knew it would be from the "dream"). Will quickly becomes sure that the death and the communication he had from Jonas (telepathically) about Angelica's death are real.

In San Francisco, Nomi Marks is out with her girlfriend, Amanita, at a pride event when she sees Jonas and falls off their motorcycle. That puts Nomi in the hospital, where brain scans reveal something abnormal. In Chicago, Will's conflict comes into stark relief when his precinct is given federal aid in finding and apprehending Jonas. In Mexico City, London, Berlin, Seoul, Nairobi, and Mumbai, other individuals begin to see Angelica and each other. Soon, they are feeling one another, seeing through their eyes or hearing things from each other's location.

While the captured Jonas enlists the aid of Will to rescue Nomi from the hospital in which she is trapped (and the killer doctor who is hunting those who are so connected), Riley Blue's friends get her involved with more drugs than she is comfortable with and when a bloodbath ensues, she finds herself on the run. For others, the conflict is simpler; in Mumbai, Kala is preparing for her wedding to a man she does not love when she starts seeing Wolfgang who she is instantly attracted to, in Mexico City, Lito's acting career is put on the line when he decides to dump his beard, but she moves into the apartment he shares with his boyfriend instead, in Germany, Wolfgang manages to crack an impossible safe, in effect stealing diamonds before his cousin can, and in Nairobi, Capheus struggles to keep his business above water, driving from the villages to the nearby cities. In Seoul, Sun Bak discovers her family's company has defrauded investors thanks to someone in the company embezzling.

Will and Amanita succeed in rescuing Nomi, while Sun takes the fall for her brother in the company's embezzling. Capheus gets into trouble when his desire to take care of his mother puts him in front of two warring gangs and Wolfgang's robbery brings down the wrath of his uncle and cousin. As the eight people begin to experience more of each other's lives - like Wolfgang appearing naked before Kala seconds before she is to be married - despite them being separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, the slowly start to learn of their own nature. When they all experience Riley's father's concert, recalling their own births in the process, Riley collapses. Riley falls under the control of the company that has been hunting the Sensates - and has captured Jonas - and Will, Nomi, Amanita make an effort to rescue herr in Iceland, but quickly find they need the others if they are going to be successful!

The first season of Sense8 is strongly character-focused and belabored with explaining the concept. The eight main characters connect through sound, taste, sight, feeling, and even scent. They have selective abilities to access each other's thoughts, memories and feelings and in the first season, the protagonists of Sense8 are figuring out the basics of their connection and how they can use it.

Having so many characters, the first season of Sense8 has a lot to service and while many television series's end up neglecting a number of them (Babylon 5, for example, had no idea what to do with the character Na'toth and Talia being written-out was probably her best arc), Sense8 does not do that. Part of what makes the first season of Sense8 so impressive is how the characters retain their worlds. Instead of completely overwhelming them, in the first season of Sense8, the characters get "visits" from one another. As a result, Wolfgang maintains his lifelong friendship with Felix, Kala and her family and her soon-to-be in-laws dominate her time and attention, and Nomi remains closer with Amanita than with any of the people in her sensate cluster. The result is that the characters pop with a realism that is compelling . . . though surprisingly little happens on the plot front.

While the main serialized plot revolves around two captures and two rescue attempts (Nomi and Riley), so much is seeded for the future seasons (I found myself screaming at the screen hoping that Kala would make the Big Pharma connection that is peppered throughout the season!). In the first season, the essential characters are:

Will Gorski - A Chicago beat cop who starts hearing Riley's club music while at home alone in his apartment when there are no neighbors around. He starts hunting the leads to try to discover what is going on with the first Sensates he learns about after Angelica's death and the cover-up of it by a medical company. Most connected to Jonas, especially after he unwittingly gets Jonas captured, Riley (whom he falls in love with) and Nomi, who he is tasked by Jonas to save, he begins to learn about the nature of the sensates and their clusters first, though it puts him and his career in immediate jeopardy,

Riley Blue - A d.j. from Iceland who lives in London, she is haunted by her past and uses drugs to escape the painful memories. She becomes convinced of Will's reality when their "visits" lead them to try calling one another and it works. When she steals drugs and money from a dealer, she turns to a druggie friend for help and is betrayed by him, almost to her death. In escaping her situation, she leaves London for Iceland, but once there discovers the ghosts of her past are too much for her to bear,

Lito - A Mexican action hero actor, he is deep in the closet, though he lives with his boyfriend. His beard, Daneilla, gets drunk one night and comes to their apartment and invites herself into their relationship. But when Daneilla takes a picture of Lito and Hernando making love and her cameraphone falls into the hands of a jealous ex-, she sacrifices herself for their happiness. But Lito discovers her sacrifice is not one Hernando can live with and he channels the strength of some of his cluster in order to step up to do right by his friend,

Sun Bak - A Korean businesswoman, she is going over the books when she realizes that someone has been embezzling. It does not take her long to realize it is her younger brother, whom she was tasked by her mother to protect before she died. Sun channels her rage - brought on largely by her unloving father - into kickboxing and is incredible at it. She becomes an incredible resource to her cluster when they need to fight multiple people at one time,

Nomi Marks - A transgendered woman in a lesbian relationship with Amanita, she has a checkered past as a hacker. However, she had a wealthy (if entirely intolerant) family that helped her escape prison. She lives with Amanita in San Francisco and during the Pride event, she sees Jonas and falls unconscious. Scans of her brain lead to her being imprisoned in the hospital by her mother and the doctor who is working for the medical company that has been hunting sensates. After her escape, she and Amanita try to learn about the company and take the fight to them while protecting the members of her cluster,

Wolfgang - A German thief, he is haunted by memories of his abusive father. While trying to crack an uncrackable safe, he hears the noises from Will's Chicago and is unable to focus. He manages to recover and crack the safe, stealing diamonds his cousin intended to steal with the help of Felix, his lifelong friend. He and Felix find a fence for the diamonds, but before they can unload the second batch, Wolfgang's cousin shoots Felix. While Wolfgang tries to get himself out of the situation with his cousin and uncle, he finds himself connecting with Kala and falling in love with her,

Kala Rasal - A chemist in Mumbai, she is arranged to be married with the son of the company for which she works. She is not in love with her fiance and as her wedding day nears, she worries, especially when she begins to see and feel Wolfgang in her head. She collapses at her wedding when she sees him and afterward begins to use her knowledge of science to help the other members of her cluster,

Capheus - A van driver in Mumbai, he is a huge fan of the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. His mother has HIV and he is motivated by a desire to get her adequate medication. He quickly falls in with pharmaceutical smugglers and the two warring factions who control medicine in Nairobi. One is able to connect him with the good medicine for his mother and he begins to transport and protect that gangster's daughter. That puts him in a moral quandary when the other side asks him to abduct the daughter for them. Determined to get out from in between, Capheus has to rely upon his connection with Sun and Will to save his life,

Amanita - Nomi's girlfriend, she is loving and supportive. She instantly believes Nomi's connection to her cluster when she sees Jonas in one of the pictures Nomi took during Pride. She goes on the run with Nomi and is absolutely loving and supportive of her,

Jonas - One of the prior generation of sensates, he witnesses Angelica's death. Unfortunately, he is already at the mercy of Whispers and becomes a liability to Will and the new cluster Angelica "gave birth" to,

and Whispers - The doctor who is hunting the sensates, he has the ability to get into the heads of any sensate simply by making eye contact with one. He disposes of Angelica's body, which puts him on Will's radar (and convinces Will of his cluster's reality) and hunts Nomi and Riley.

Even from the previews, the concept of Sense8 had some potential problems. Fortunately, J. Michael Straczynski is smart enough to recognize the potential flaws within his own universe. In order for Jonas to make any sense as a character and be able to deliver exposition to explain the condition to Will, the new generation of Sensates cannot be the first. Ironically, Sense8 solves the problem in virtually the identical way as Heroes (reviewed here!). In Heroes, the people developing extraordinary abilities in the wake of an eclipse that "activated" them start looking into the phenomenon and use a photograph to discover the scientific cabal that may be responsible for creating them. Nomi finds a photograph online that does essentially the same thing.

As the season reaches its climax, it hits its stride wonderfully. As characters step up to their sense of shared destiny, they get smarter about how to use their connection. In the final two episodes, there is a huge problem - Whispers doesn't know about Wolfgang and Wolfgang is geographically closest to Iceland, but the villain does know about Will. The only reason for Will to go to Iceland instead of Wolfgang (after Felix is safe) is for the romantic connection building between Will and Riley and in-context can only be understood by their lack of experience with their connections (otherwise, it's a pretty huge problem of liability that someone should have been smart enough to catch!). One real plot problem in the whole latter half of the season is incredibly small compared to most shows!

A larger problem with the first season of Sense8 is that the episodes have an inherently difficult problem with visualization to explain its concept and it troublingly jumbles that with flashbacks. The characters begin to see, hear, and translocate to one another, which the television medium is able to do adequately, at the very least. Unfortunately, Sense8 is working on establishing its concept when it blends that with flashbacks. Unlike Babylon 5, Sense8 does not use black and white to indicate trips to the past. This is problematic in Sense8 because there are scenes that combine translocation with time travel. Perceptive viewers will figure flashbacks are coming - the only reason for Wolfgang's father's face to be on his gravestone is if he's not dead or the viewer will need to recognize him in flashbacks. It's the latter.

Beyond that, the first season of Sense8 does all it promises. It is the first chapter in a larger work and it plays out as such. The characters are established and they start to develop. The acting is impressive, though outside Naveen Andrews, Daryl Hannah, Freema Agyeman and the cameos from Joe Pantoliano, the massive cast of Sense8 is made up of virtual unknowns to the U.S. audience (Max Riemalt has an extensive IMDB resume for German films, Miguel Angel Silvestre and Tina Desai are similarly internationally known). While Doona Bae is recognizable from Cloud Atlas, she is given the chance to truly shine in the role of Sun. Bae is given a big physical role in addition to credibly playing a Chief Financial Officer of a major company.

Jamie Clayton is one of the stand-outs of the cast of Sense8 in the first season. Clayton is given a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in the first season and she plays off Agyeman beautifully. They have amazing on-screen chemistry (as do Silvestre and Alfonso Herrera, Desai and Riemelt, and Tuppence Middleton and Brian J. Smith) and Clayton is given a number of monologues that give her powerful emotional statements and experiences to relate. Clayton makes Nomi well-rounded, more than an archetype or stereotype and the moment the season turns to her utilizing her detective and hacking skills, the series completely pops. Clayton never seems like she is reading lines; she becomes Nomi with complete credibility.

Ultimately, the result is a show that leaps between people and places and works to develop the characters. The first season makes one care about all eight of the characters and makes them absolutely terrified for what might happen to them in the subsequent ones. It is the must-see show of the season.

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Grace And Frankie - Season 1
Agent Carter - Season 1
Daredevil - Season 1
The Newsroom - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 3
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
”Shadows” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
”Fast Enough” - The Flash


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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