There’s a reason that HBO makes all the best US shows. Lots of reasons in fact. At a basic level, it’s got oodles of cash so it can afford to splurge on high production standards. It’s also a premium cable show, which means that it can show pretty much anything: sex, violence, swearing, drug-taking – whatever it wants, more or less.
But most importantly, it gives TV producers creative control. No network executives monitoring scripts, sending notes, telling the writers to make character x more likeable, character y less gay and situation z less East Coast. Here’s your big pile of money, give us 10 episodes, off you go and don’t come back until you’re good and ready.
So naturally Netflix, attempting to burst into the worldwide TV scene and wanting to overturn the idea of Internet TV being cheap and nasty, essentially emulated HBO’s model with its own productions. The slight twist is that it combined the HBO production model with the DVD release model: almost without exception, it’s released all episodes of its shows at the same time, usually on a Friday, so we can binge-watch them over the weekend.
But the model does have flaws, both in terms of production and release. With Grace and Frankie and Bloodline, for example, somebody somewhere needed to tell the shows’ creators that they were spending an awful lot of money on something that wasn’t very good. They really needed a network executive saying character x need to be more likeable, character y more gay and situation z less Florida Everglades. They also needed someone to point out it’s no use structuring a show to be watched in one go, if the individual episodes are so uninspiring, no one can be bothered to watch the next one.
Sense8 is perhaps the epitome of all the flaws of the Netflix model and is so far, quite easily the worst show that Netflix has put out. Two episodes in, it’s getting better, but that’s from a very, very low starting point.
On paper, the show should be good. For starters, it’s created by the Wachowskis, who created and directed The Matrix, and J Michael Straczynski, who’s best known for creating Babylon 5 but was BAFTA-nominated for his script for Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. The Wachowskis are also directing it.
The show itself is essentially Heroes, with strangers around the world waking up to discover they have strange new abilities and that they’re all linked somehow. There’s even a Mohinder-alike (played by Lost/The Buddha of Suburbia’s Naveen Andrews) to go around the world to each of them and explain what’s happening to them.
The main difference between this and Heroes is that rather than be able to fly, have super strength, etc, the sensate ‘sense eight’ can share each other’s senses – they can see, hear, feel, taste, etc, everything that the others experience. They can even tap into each other’s knowledge. Or at least they could if they could understand what they are…
…and each other. Because this is a show that celebrates diversity and empathy. Right from its “look at the wonders of the world and humanity” title sequence through to the end credits of each episode, Sense8 wants you to experience the joys of living from every possible person’s point of view. So the eight include a gay Spanish actor, a Chinese female martial artist/businesswoman, a trans, lesbian San Francisco hacker, a Chicago cop, a young female drug addict DJ who’s down and out in London, an Indian bride-to-be, an African bus driver and more.
All of which is admirable and oodles of cash have been spent to give us worldwide filming. It lacks a little bit of local knowledge, giving us a London filled with Mancs and a penniless girl who manages to live in a bedsit within walking of St Paul’s, but it’s all very lavishly filmed, with the Wachowskis’ typical flair for the visual.
The trouble is that for at least the first episode and a half, not only is all this taken to be sufficient in and of itself, but clearly no one’s told the Wachowskis that maybe they need to be a little bit more disciplined.
There is an attempt to give us a plot, with Andrews, who is himself sensate, trying to protect the Sense8 from someone called Whispers who’s also sensate but killing off the sensate. Or something.
If that previous paragraph sounds ludicrous, that’s because it is and so is the show.
All the same, despite that plot starting itself and the show off with Daryl Hannah committing suicide, nothing happens as a result of it that’s in any way exciting until the end of the second episode, when we get Andrews doing all kinds of cool things. But that’s two hours in.
Until then, we get not so much a bunch of characters as a bunch of Very Important Characters who represent Very Important Things and only do and talk about Very Important Things. Must go to Pride parade with black lesbian girlfriend. Must make video explaining to the world importance of Pride parade. Must have disapproving parent who doesn’t accept my life choices. Must show importance of women’s rights in India. Must show difficulty of coming out when in the public spotlight. And so on.
In between all these Very Important Things, there is the constant repetition for each of the Sense8 of numerous scenes of them experiencing what the others are experiencing and then shaking it off as an hallucination – “What can it all mean? Am I going mad?” No, but possibly the audience is, having already seen this five times before and confidently expecting it at least another two times.
And in between this epic point underlining are interminable scenes showing off the various cultures and locations. For example, Indian bride-to-be’s fiancé puts on a faux Bollywood dance number for her at their party. It’s a lovely idea, but it only really needed 10 seconds of time to make the point. But the Wachowskis instead choose to give us the entire dance number.
The result of all of this, coupled with some of the worst dialogue since someone put The Starlost through Google Translate and back again, is that the first episode is among the worst things I’ve ever seen on TV. It makes Artemis 81 look vibrant, exciting and unpretentious.
There is just enough of an uptick at the end of episode two that I might try episode three. But I can’t imagine there’s a single human being who made it through to the end of episode one who was cheerfully looking forward to the next episode, unless they were hoping to see more of Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman doing naughty things with her girlfriend while faking an American accent for no good reason.
I guess if there’s a lesson here, it’s that if you’re going to give creative freedom to creators, either be very careful to whom you give that freedom or be prepared for some epic failures as well as successes. Sense8 is a very ambitious, beautiful plea for empathy and tolerance and to learn to love and accept people for all their diversity. It’s also an example of how even the best creatives can need a dispassionate eye to look over their work and reign them in.