Sense8 — How does TV become literature?

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Sense8 is one of the most daring and exciting TV shows to have come out in the last few years. I rank the first season of Sense8 on par with Game of Thrones, The West Wing, and Mr. Robot in terms of it’s importance for pushing boundaries as to what a TV show can be and it’s expectations of maturity from it’s audience. In this post I’ll try to dive into why I think the show has differentiated itself in what is considered the Golden Age of TV. I’ve only written a few other reviews of TV shows that I watch and I find reviewing to be a nice reprieve from the creative demands of work (polymer chemistry) and my other hobby (writing fiction). Good reviews of film and all things video are usually found at places like Film School Rejects. If you want to read what I think is my best piece of fiction in 2016 then read 14th Street to Chicago.

Potential Spoilers for the first season of Sense8 are below.

The basic summary of Sense 8 in case you don’t know is that 8 people who are diverse and very very different end up being able to share each other’s senses, abilities, and skills. This group of people are called senseates and they can only share within their cluster of 8 people. There are multiple clusters around the world and it’s been going on for a long time as far as we know. This is where we are hit with a big dose of diversity. Out of the eight main characters shown below we are introduced to a trans woman Nomi, a macho Mexican actor Lito who is secretly gay, straight-edge white Cop Will, a Icelandic DJ Riley, a German Thief Wolfgang, bus driver Capheus, Kala the Indian Nurse, and the badass martial artist/CFO Sun.

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Eight main characters to keep track of and 8 or more side characters to go with them

I’ve watched a lot of TV during my life and I’ve never seen a more diverse cast in my life. The cast is global and the problems of those global characters are often a reflection of the problems of country those characters inhabit. For instance in Nomi’s character is transgender and lives in the United States. I remembered that the Wachowski siblings are also transgender women who live in the United States. Aside from the show Transparent on Amazon this is the only show I can think of that has a transgender main character. In my mind it was an incredibly bold move coupled with the fact that there are also sex scenes involving said transgender. Most importantly, Sense8 doesn’t attempt to sensationalize the fact that there is a transgender character and poses to most viewers that she is as “normal” as all of the other characters. The characters who many might consider “other” are all treated essentially the same. The show challenges the audience with that idea that being trans, gay, white, black, korean, or Indian is the foundation to representing the population of the world as opposed to just building a show around what has been a touchy subject. The diversity thus becomes part of the setting of the show as opposed to being a plot crutch.

In each character there is an internal conflict and this is the basis for that character’s identity. Identity is what makes them feel more real. The use of an internal conflict creates a feeling of realness or empathy for the characters. This concept is paralleled in HBOs Westworld where in order to create artificial intelligence in the “hosts” a tragic event must be implanted or occur in that host’s past. The act of making the viewer empathize with a character is one half of the literature equation. But why do we empathize with these characters and not say the characters of A&E’s The Glades?

The great thing about having 8 main characters is that it is very likely a viewer will love 1–2 characters, like 3–4 characters, and not really care about 1–2 characters. But what makes us love/hate a fictional television character?

We empathize with character who’s conflicts we have experienced ourselves or have felt the effects of those conflicts. For instance any viewer who is or has known someone to be gay or wanting to be transgender could probably empathize with Nomi and Lito. For a viewer who has played life by the rules, and still get’s shit on in the end would empathize with Will and Sun. A viewer who has felt responsible for a parent’s death might empathize with Riley, while someone who has despised a parent for abuse might empathize with Wolfgang. Someone who is scraping by economically while also being responsible for someone else could empathize with Capheus. Someone set to be married, but then falling for someone else could empathize with Kala. Now take those conflicts — those problems that the beautiful characters have, and throw some crazy plot driven problems at them all to overcome. And have those beautiful characters overcome those problems with exciting action scenes. That’s how to make an exciting story.

In contrast to the action the internal conflicts play out over nice little quiet scenes. These quiet moments are usually between a main character and some more minor characters who are able to act as a foil to the specific protagonist of that scene. In the clip below Nomi’s foil is her old hacking buddy “Bug” who knew her before her sex change. It’s important because Nomi is essentially Bug’s equal in terms of technical skill, but Bug represents part of that oppressive society. Sun’s foils are the three women she shares a prison cell with who rebelled against what they considered to be an unfair or unjust society and are being punished for their actions. While Sun just tried to do what was “right” for her family and consistently gets screwed over by that family.

The identity of the characters are worked on in these quiet scenes and it’s where the characters get a chance to grow. They may be the least entertaining, but its reason why Sense8 feels like a good show after we see past the shiny production.

With all of that said I think Sense8 still isn’t there in terms of TV literature in that it be as important and relevant in 20–50 years as it is right now. The West Wing is a great example of how a show is still relevant 20 years after it aired. The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have given us a beautiful piece of work to watch and empathize with issues that people all over the world deal with on a daily basis. The thing that is keeping Sense8 from ascending to the next level is the lack of a clear problem. I’m not saying they need to undergo some sort of heroes journey, but that is the way the show has been structured. There is no Sauron. There are no White Walkers. There is no unruly government that the characters need to get under control to save the world.

So far all Sense8 has in terms of the big bad guy is someone who can get inside the Senseate’s minds once they look at him and then make them do things. This guy belongs to some global organization that is maybe studying or running experiments on the senseates. We don’t really know why they are doing it. We don’t really know what the deal is with this shadowy organization. We don’t know why they should be bad except that they hurt someone with whom we empathize.

What would cement the show is if the shadowy organization represented the opposite of what the show is trying to promote in a non-cliche way. It’s the most elegant solution that I can see. Either way, the 2nd season will premiere this year so not too much longer to find out.

If you liked this then check out my other TV show reviews of How to Make it in America and StartUp.

If you like fiction check out this play I wrote about two people who’s lives change after meeting one night outside of a bar in Washington D.C. on 14th street.

Or if you were recently in an airport and you were having a bad time check out The Worst Mood.

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Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

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