With Sense8, the Wachowskis (the Matrix) and Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) try to explore what happens if eight random people around the world get mind-linked. I think they failed. What they made instead was eight hours of watching paint dry on cardboard cutouts of characters.
To my amazement the show has rave reviews and a high 8 on IMDB. Personally, I feel it’s highly over8ted – pardon the puns.
This review is going to be full of spoilers. If you still want to watch it – seriously, don’t – stop reading here. This is going to be a long one, and will contain a lot of swearing, because this show really annoys me and ranting is much more satisfying with some curse words.
For a reminder of who is who, look at the banner above.
So, buckle up, here we go.
Sense8 opens with a shot of a woman called Angelica in a dark building, writhing in agony. She sees a man who is not there, Jonas, and a scary dude with a white beard, who is also not there. As she speaks, she sees eight people, who she gives something, and who – according to Jonas – ‘will be hunted’. She is apparently giving birth. Or something. Then, the bearded man finds her in the real world and she kills herself. End prologue.
The eight people seen earlier are mind-linked, and from here we follow their eight stories. The overarching plot concerning the bearded man – called Whispers, Jonas, and the sensates (you know, the mind-linked bunch) interweaves with this.
The climax of season one is when sensate Will saves his love interest – sensate Riley – from the evil Whispers. There are also some wrap-ups of plot-arcs of Lito (he admits he’s gay), Capheus (he saves the daughter of a crime lord), and Wolfgang (he kills his family). Will saving Riley – or vice versa, whatever – is presented as the heroic victory of the season. Actually, since the main goal of the bad guy was to get inside one of their cluster’s head, and he succeeded at that, I would call it a defeat. So, yeah, Whispers, you won! You deserve it.
That is all. The rest of the characters are just there for decoration, and there are no further explanations. Eight hours of television compressed to three f#ing paragraphs.
No, no, that’s build-up, you say, characterisation. Is it? Is it really? After spending an hour per character on build-up and characterisation, let’s have a look at each of these characters and see what has been built-up.
Will is a cop. We learn his father is also a cop. He has a rebellious streak and when he comes across a wounded gang-banger, he saves the boy. He falls in love with Riley – god knows why, he apparently loves them brainless with a pretty smile – and… oh, that’s it. No wait, in his youth he had visions of a missing person from one of his father’s cases. A girl, who is apparently dissected by Whispers. Of course, this is not explored any further, so it doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot.
His character arc is… not there. He meets Jonas, who is then captured. He helps Nomi from getting herself lobotomised. He saves Riley from getting herself killed. Then he tracks Angelica – you know from the prologue – and finds out… nothing except the name of the evil corporation; oh, and that happens off-screen and gets him suspended. And finally, he walks into an enemy facility in Iceland to save Riley while others do the work. This last feat is kind of cool, except the reason Riley is there is moronic, the ‘victory’ is eclipsed by the evil Whispers now being in Will’s head and they have to drug him for… ever?
However, nowhere is this an arc. He doesn’t overcome weakness, evolve, learn something, or even does much but sit at home and react when one of the other seven gets in trouble. He has a saviour complex, and at the end of the season… he saves somebody. He has no plan; no agency. The only real choices he makes in the entire season are:
- Screwing up his police career to find out a company name;
- Getting on a plane to Iceland;
- Shooting himself full of drugs and hoping Riley will pick up the slack.
That’s right, after twelve episodes of passively sitting on his ass, the climax of the show is him on a road in Iceland, shooting up and letting the most passive character in the show solve his crap. Oh, and that’s after he’s let the bad guy win while he knew better than to let that happen. The bad guy must not look you in the eye; why the f$ck are you not wearing mirroring sunglasses, you bloody idiot?
Wolfgang is the least moronic of the bunch. He actually has a kind of arc. Wolfgang hates his uncle and cousin. To prove he is better than his father, he cracks a safe that his father couldn’t crack. Because he hates his family, he decides to screw with his crime-lord cousin while cracking the safe. Meanwhile, Wolfgang falls in love with the second-most passive character in the show, Kala. He wants to sell his loot with his friend Felix, then go to India to her. Unfortunately, his cousin wants revenge – duh – and nearly kills Felix. Wolfgang avenges Felix by killing his cousin, then proceeds to kill his uncle to avoid being hunted down by the man. While doing this last, we learn that Wolfgang murdered his own father because his father beat him.
Wolfgang’s story is the only one I found remotely interesting. He actually has some agency, and he actually tries to abandon his life of crime to go to his new love, only to be dragged back in and having to face he’s a monster. It leads to the only scenes I really enjoyed in the entire season, namely his showdown with his cousin and his uncle.
Still, most of the season, Wolfgang spends in bars, swimming naked in bath houses, and sitting around doing nothing. The safe-cracking takes about ten minutes of screen-time in episode one, and the showdown with his uncle and cousin are in two of the last three episodes. Meaning, for nine of the twelve episodes, nothing interesting happens. Also, one wonders, if you can get a rocket launcher, why do you go after your uncle with a normal gun?
Still, he is one of the only redeeming characters in the show. On the other hand, he also has one of the most cringe-worthy scenes, when Kala and he share minds while both going to the bathroom.
Lito is a gay Mexican actor, but he hides being gay. Being gay is -of course- not a character trait, just as being heterosexual isn’t. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to him. He is an actor and he’s being gay. His arc is that he ends up in a love-triangle with his boyfriend and his fake girlfriend. To save his fake girlfriend from being beaten up, he has to admit he’s gay. This has never been done before in ‘science fiction’, of course (I put the science fiction in quotes because the show doesn’t do jack with the scifi angle, but more about that later). Stargate Universe, Orphan Black, and Torchwood apparently didn’t happen. Worse, all these shows had actual character who were also gay, while Sense8 has gay stereotypes that can only pretend to be characters.
The second-biggest problem with Lito is that he is planless. He had no agency at all, except when he decides to out himself, but he only does that after his boyfriend breaks up with him and his fake-girlfriend is beaten up by her ex a couple of times. Most of the time he is drifting about, being gay and/or being emotional. The worst scene of the season is where he gets really emotional because he shares minds with Sun who is having her period – hi-f%cking-larious. Lito is not a character, he’s a walking gay-stereotype, and I find him offensive. Wonder of wonders, though, he’s not the most offensive gay person in the show.
Capheus ticks the ‘black guy’ box in the stereo-type ensemble of Sense8. He lives in Africa and his mother has HIV. Capheus is a bus driver who gets asked by a crime lord to drive the man’s daughter to a doctor in exchange for HIV suppressants for his mother. A guy the crime lord and Capheus pissed off tries to force Capheus to hand over the crime lord’s daughter. He does not, and instead saves the crime lord from the bad guy.
Capheus only takes action after he gets himself in trouble by being stupid. He challenges a bad guy to get his van back after he gets it stolen. He goes after a backpack he has to transport for the crime lord after he has it stolen from him. He doesn’t bring the crime lord’s daughter to the bad guy until after he’s already failed to alert said crime lord. All in all, his arc is apparently that he gets dragged deeper and deeper into a mess because he’s an idiot, but with help from others he manages not to drown in it. Oh, but we should feel sorry for him because his mother has HIV.
Again, he has hardly any agency, he just reacts to whatever happens. Also, Capheus has hardly any personality. He drives cars and he watches Jean-Claude van Damme movies. And did I say his mother has HIV? Knowing all these things is clear in about one minute, the climactic saving of his crime lord boss takes up another twenty, so that leaves a lot of time for build-up. For some reason, we learn that he and his mother were kicked out of a village. And his mother had to abandon Capheus’s sister. It apparently has some bearing on either his personality or the plot, but I could not determine exactly what.
Finally, both the crime lord and the bad guy that capture him are idiots. Who in their right mind takes his daughter out of their home in a shiny SUV, then hands them over to a bus they are openly renting in the middle of the street, and thinks this is stealthy? The bad guy has no trouble finding out what is going on. The bad guy then proceeds to blackmail Capheus into handing over crime-lord’s daughter. This is somewhat superfluous, as the bad guy then turns around and kidnaps the crime lord himself without blinking. WTF are you people doing? It makes no sense (… 8)
Now that we’ve handled the ‘interesting’ characters, we go to the more boring ones. First up, Sun Something from Seoul. She is heavily into martial arts and also a company CEO in her family business in male-dominated Korea.
This could have been interesting character. However, she doesn’t do jack sh!t the entire season. At the outset, her brother is about to be arrested for embezzling money. Her father asks her to take the fall for him. This is the moment for her to choose to do something; she can accept the call to action and go on an adventure. But no, she does no such thing and says ‘okay, I’ll do it daddy’. She goes to jail. Her father comes to his senses (by himself without any pushing) and tries to get her out. But, oh no, her brother kills their father and she remains stuck in jail. Season end.
I repeat: she does as she’s told, goes to jail, the end. Her function in the story is solely to provide the other seven with martial arts powers. It supposedly makes her interesting – a business woman who does martial arts – but simply being that woman is the extent of the coolness. She doesn’t do anything. Nothing. Her motivation is apparently that her mother told her to take care of her father and brother before she died of cancer. If I was that mother, I wouldn’t do that. I actually will be a father soon, and probably have a daughter, but if I die of cancer in a few years, I’ll be damned if I tell my six-year-old that it’s her responsibility to take care of her mother. ‘Make sure you live a happy life’, maybe, or ‘I’ll be with you in spirit’, or maybe ‘I love you’, but not this.
Her father is a f*cking child-abusing lunatic, who has managed to raise a psycho son and is corrupt enough to neglect his innocent daughter and land her in jail. Then he gets killed trying to redeem himself. What the heck is this character supposed to relate to the viewers?
But it goes downhill from here. On to Bollywood.
How did they come up with this one?
‘Ehm, we want to show off some Bollywood cliches and trash India, what can we do? Well, let’s add a character who is wrestling with a non-existent problem for the entire season so we have our hands free to show us some prejudices’.
Kala has absolutely no personality. Zero. She works at a drug company in India. The son of the owner falls in love with her. He’s apparently not hindered by her total lack of interests in him . He asks her to marry and she agrees, even though she feels nothing for him. She could say no. Her parents are fine with that. The boss of her company would like nothing more. But she hesitates. What if…blank. She wrestles with this non-issue for the entire season without resolving it.
Her biggest contribution to her own plot is fainting at her over-the-top Bollywood wedding when she sees a penis in her mind. Now that’s agency for you.
There is some crap tacked on about religion versus atheism, but that kind of plays out without her and involves the very ‘deep’ conflict of ‘I want to worship Ganesha’ and ‘I want to forbid that… for reasons’. Ah, yes, a great religious debate that involves no actual arguments and does not actually involve the character.
Nomi is a trans-sexual. And gay. When she’s at parties, I imagine her talking about herself: ‘yes, really, I spent all my time being a trans-sexual. And almost as much time being gay. It’s very time-consuming’. So, great, a trans-sexual. Can we now have one who has a personality? And who actually does something? If this was the fifties she’d be a black person who spent all their time being black, yo.
Nomi spends the entire season either crying, having sex, or using other people’s hacking tools. Again, she’s passive in this. She’s the damsell in distress, who nearly gets lobotomised and her escape attempts consist of crying for her girlfriend. Did I mention she was a lesbian and a trans-sexual? If she were a heterosexual woman, we’d cry ‘sexism’, but she’s a trans-sexual lesbian so it’s okay. This character is weaker than overcooked noodles. She’s ostensibly a hacker, but she can’t do jack without ‘hackmaster’ toys. Do you know what a hacker needs to hack, Nomi? A f#cking laptop and an internet connection. Later on she doesn’t even make the effort of looking for the hacker-crutches, no, they’re brought to her by a deus ex machina.
And some advise for people hunted by the FBI, not from personal experience but probably still valid: when they’re on a manhunt for you, do not return to your own home. That the FBI don’t take her down is a plot hole that a fr8 train could run through. But no, she escapes the FBI, goes home, where she meets up with her girlfriend who was let go by the FBI and not followed, and has a lot of sex.
As I said before, Lito was not the most offensive gay character in the show. That honour goes to Nomi!
Can this get any worse? Oh yes.
I have never seen any character who was such a mindless husk as this pretty-smiling Icelandic woman. All the other characters are as passive as they can get, and Riley still manages to top their sheer vapidness. The sum total of her contribution to the series is sitting around listening to music, smiling prettily, and driving a car (off-screen).
She stands around while her friends get her caught in a robbery-killing of a drug dealer in London, listening to music during a shootout. She mindlessly steals money and drugs, then dumps both, for no reason. She sits around a friend’s house until the drug dealer strangles her – unfortunately no-life Will saves her. She returns to Iceland, where we learn she thinks she’s cursed, because another brainless sensate tried to convince her to leave Iceland in the most inconceivably stupid way imaginable. Her passiveness is the result of *gasp* her brainless boyfriend driving them off the road in a snow storm when she was giving birth, which killed him and her baby, while she was… walking.
I would like a moment here to take a deep breath before I can actually write this next part down.
The main plot Riley is involved in, is her getting captured by Whispers. Why is she captured? Because the trauma she has from her baby’s and boyfriend’s death makes her vomit blood and go into a coma. A non-existent disease which goes away just as mysteriously as it came on. I am going to write this again for emphasis: the main climax of the first season of this show involves Riley getting captured by bad guys because losing a baby a few years back makes her vomit blood now.
Her entire arc boils down to a continual stream of doing nothing for episode after episode with the final victory of her driving off in an ambulance off-screen to save her drugged up boyfriend. Have you ever stepped into a car in the morning to go to work? Well, then you’ve reached the same level of excitement as Sense8 season one. Maybe that’s why they all stand around like mindless twats in the closing scene:
“Oh, shit, was that the entire season…? We didn’t do jack for 8 hours.”
Onward to the secondary characters from the prologue.
Who is this woman? What does Angelica have to do with the sensate cluster of the main characters? Did she… birth them? Or what? Jonas apparently knows but isn’t telling. If she did activate their sensate link, how does that wash with the fact that both Will and Riley have shown sensate powers in their youth? Did she mind-link them back in time?
Nothing about this character is really clear. What was she trying to achieve? For such a pivotal character that the show opens with, she affects the plot remarkably little. Or are they saving this for later seasons? At this rate, by season 8 we should have answers to maybe three of the questions I posed here. Sigh.
Jonas is also a sensate. In the prologue he’s charged with helping the cluster. He’s also on the FBI most wanted list, and when he talks to Will he’s captured. Well, that was stupid. We learn later that he may or may not be a bad guy. Did he hunt other sensates? Was he working for Whispers? What went down?
Through the eight hours of build-up the writers forgot to answer any of these questions, though. Or some more that popped up for me. How did he find Will? Why doesn’t he tell Will anything useful about his powers? Did he realize that his meeting Will actually put him in danger?
The cloak of mystery thrown over this character does not make him more interesting. I would genuinely have liked to have known more about him, but he spends the entire season talking out of his ass and being strapped down.
And finally, the ultimate bad guy. His name is Whispers and he’s mean. Why is he doing this? Where did he get that entire organisation? What is his goal? What makes him tick? What is he to Angelica? What is he to Jonas? All questions that are not answered. Nobody even asks them. Nomi, instead of boning her girlfriend with a strap-on, maybe could have figured out why the government is helping some guy lobotomise sensates.
You see, lobotomizing sensates so you can use them as your own personal out-of-body-zombies sounds cool, and that scene where he shoots the doctor using another man’s body is kind of okay. However, it’s not useful in the grand scheme of things, is it? A drone is far more lethal. Or a black-ops operative. You know what you could do with sensates? Recruit them and use them as spies. Or undercover cops who don’t need to wear a wire. An untrackable connection between people that allows them to share skills. That is worth gold. Why on earth would you lobotomize them? And through a global corporation that is stationed in Iceland? What is that company doing for profits? And how the heck do they control the FBI?
In short, Whispers is a bad guy who’s just bad because he can be. And people follow him… because. Weak. Very weak.
What is missing
Having, hopefully, fully explained why all the characters in this show are empty-headed-agency-less-stereo-type wankers, I posit that ‘build-up’ is the wrong word. ‘Badly paced’ springs to mind, or ‘superfluous’. An enormous amount of time is spent on wallowing in the show’s own perceived awesomeness.
“Look at this, there are 8 people sharing a song.”
“Check it out, check it out! We’ve got 8 people sharing sex.”
“Oh, aren’t we cool, we have this awesome mind-sharing-around-the-world gimmick. Look at it. Just, look at it.”
Please. Do you know what could have been done with all that time?
Actual conflicts, for instance. What would be your response if you started to share other people’s thought? I’d be scared, or angry, and I might go to a doctor. I’d try to verify that those other people were real. I’d try to figure out who they were. After that I’d try to figure out the extent of my powers. The characters in Sense8 do none of those things. They completely ignore the fact that they are seeing things and continue with their lives as if nothing happens. They accept seven other people in their heads without blinking. Do they warn each other when it turns out they are being hunted by an huge-ass international corporation that has the FBI in their pockets? Nope. Do they talk to each other about what is happening? Barely.
If I was the writers I would have added some conflict. Okay, some of them fall in love with each other; big whoop. What if one of the others got jealous? What if two of them hated each other? What if the cop was a homophobe? That would have created some tension. One of them could have started playing mind games with the others.
Then there’s the powers themselves. They could have – for instance – monetized their powers by cheating at high-stakes poker games. What happens if one of them gets tortured? Or killed? Can one of them take over another’s body to stitch up a wound without feeling the pain? What would happen if two of them got into a fist-fight with each other? How cool would a gun-fight be if the participants could see each other’s thoughts!
Instead of exploring all this stuff, they spent hours on shared musical numbers, sex scenes, and fart jokes. What a bloody waste. The science fiction angle is buried under all this repetitive hand-waving of the writers and directors. Instead of pointing at the shiny gimmick for 8 hours, they should have explored their own premise. Then you could actually call it science fiction, instead of a bad soap opera with shiny bits tacked on.
Of course, this show is really ‘edgy’. It shows a penis! It has lesbian-trans-sexual-strap-on sex. It has a twenty minute montage of eight woman giving birth, full-monty style. I’m Dutch. We’ve had ‘edgy’ non-functional sex, nudity, and related crap for decades. It’s good not to shy away from these things, but only if it’s functional.
The ‘edgy’ parts of Sense8 are another gimmick, smoke and mirrors to hide bad story-telling. My wife and I fast-forwarded through most of the ‘edgy’ stuff. Surprise, surprise, skipping the ten-minute sex scene did not make me miss anything. There is absolutely no reason for the birthing scenes. Seeing how all eight characters are born in a really long montage is not characterisation. It isn’t plot either. It’s not even setting. It’s a cheap way to get ‘edgy’ with it. It was a disgusting scene with no function and it blew my suspension of disbelief to bits.
Instead of being all ‘edgy’, the show could have done some actual build-up. Some explanation of motivations. Added some bloody conflict between the characters. But no, gay-lesbian-birthing-sex scenes for the win.
Sense8 is a steaming pile of crap. It has terrible characterisation, a bad plot, and the worst pacing I’ve seen in years. The only redeeming thing I can think of is that the acting isn’t bad and that the concept could have been cool.
So, don’t watch Sense8. Or at the very least, watch Orphan Black as well, or Torchwood Children of Earth, or read a good book.