Lunchtable TV Talk: Sense8 – “This is the real fucking world – nothing’s fair”

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After the first episode of Netflix’s Sense8, I was disappointed and did not even want to continue watching. I am not alone in this sentiment. The show is uneven in its pace and not every thread makes sense (maybe it does not have to – that might not be the point). The cited Hitfix article praises the show as being ambitious and sometimes great despite its weaknesses, and as I made my way through the show, I felt the same way. There were many touching moments, many hilarious moments, and many concepts that struggled against the ordinary to find greatness.

I won’t get into the premise of the show – it’s scifi, it’s about strangers in different parts of the world suddenly experiencing a mind-body connection that enables them to see, hear, feel each other. If that vague idea sounds interesting, watch it to find out for yourself if it means anything to you.

Hitfix also pointed out that many of the supporting characters contributed more entertainment value and depth than supporting characters generally do. This is particularly true, just as the article says, of Freema Agyeman’s tough, clever Amanita. (She’s better known for her role as Martha Jones in Doctor Who – and for me, who has oddly never seen any of the storied Doctor Who franchise, Law & Order UK, as prosecutor Alesha Phillips.)

The same cannot be said always for the stories of some of the main characters. I found myself most irritated by the story of “Riley” – the supposedly Icelandic character. Her character cites some vaguely “Icelandic” things – half the stuff she says comes back to sentences that begin with, “In Iceland…” – but most of it is the kind of drivel spouted in tourist handbooks. At least the people Riley encounters when she returns to Iceland from her home in London are actual Icelandic people – including her father, portrayed by an Icelandic folk and blues singer, KK.

It might be that much of this show feels inauthentic in that all the characters around the world speak English. There are moments when the characters’ lives collide, and only in those moments, the characters speak in their own native languages (the Korean girl speaks Korean, the German guy speaks German, etc.), but almost immediately “adapt” to understand each other but the entire show is in this lingua franca of English. Given how much of television is now being presented in languages other than English, it feels lazy and assumes laziness to make Sense8 this way when it is otherwise, progressive and full of diverse identities. Does using English help more people in a broad audience connect to a broader spectrum of diverse characters? Does it break down barriers rather than create one in the form of language? Possibly. This show does not always hit the mark, but its sights were set high enough that adding the layer of language might have just been too complex for an already complicated story. That said, though, I feel that “original” language has added so much to other shows that I wonder what might have been added (or taken away) here. (I have already written about original language use on TV, the new subtitling revolution – and I don’t love fake accents in place of the actual language – again, the “Icelandic” girl who is actually a Brit using a put-on Icelandic accent instead of just using Icelandic with subtitles….) Lovely scenery of Iceland, though.

The show is best when it reveals its many small moments of insight – even if they are not “deep” or hidden insight – moments of clarity that reflect on the duality and universality of the main characters’ lives overlapping. One small example – in episode 9 when Lito, the Mexican soap star, states while drowning his sorrows in a bar, “I was living in two separate worlds”. He could just as well be referring to his status as a Sensate, colliding into multiple worlds although he might be talking about his public life as a famous actor and his private life as a closeted gay man and the struggles and losses that has caused for him. “A secret self”, as Lito discusses with the bartender before it degenerates into self-hating homophobia.

Ultimately the unanswered questions, the potential and the little insights may provide a path for a second season. Fingers crossed.

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