Wednesday, October 11, 2017


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When Netflix announced that it would not be renewing Sense8 for a third season, its small but devoted fanbase was distraught.  I never fully took to the show, but at worst, it was one of the most ambitious, visually stunning, and good-hearted failures I’ve ever seen.  There were things that Sense8 could do with its premise and passion and production budget that no other show could, and that’s part of what made it frustrating that it so frequently settled for being, as I tweeted awhile back, “Chick Tracts for progressives.” I don’t love the 140-character glibness of that assessment, so I wanted to elaborate on some of the ways I found that the show stumbled dramatically, by focusing on planting cultural flags instead of laying narrative track. Because while the show itself has been deceased for months now, I think the sort of indulgence it traffics in is becoming more commonplace.  And will continue to, barring some sea change in the way social media, hot takes, and increasing fan engagement with creators have been influencing TV and movies over the last however many years since I became a cranky old man that yells at clouds about kids and their internets.

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By the way, I'm aware of the irony of appearing on the
internet to criticize it, so don't bother pointing it out

Sense8 was beloved for its characters, and the attitudes of inclusivity and sex-positivity that it wears on its sleeve.  What it is not beloved for is its story, because frankly, the story kind of sucks, in ways it really didn’t have to.  It had the pieces for a solid sci-fi conspiracy plot, something more than serviceable enough to hang its bravura setpieces and grand thematic pronouncements on. The trouble is that Sense8 loved its characters too much to ever really challenge them, much less actually hurt them, and it turns out that is sort of essential for drama.  The premise is such that there are eight protagonists rather than one – the titular cluster of individuals from far-flung corners of the world that find they can step into each other’s minds and bodies.  It’s a cool concept, and one ripe for exploring the themes of discrimination and empathy and uncanny karaoke that the show wants to tackle.  But that premise also makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ever isolate any of the main characters, as they are literally never alone and even at their lowest points have constant access to a half dozen perfectly sympathetic ears.

Isolating the protagonist is an important part of drama, though, all the more so when it’s ultimately in service of themes about the importance of interpersonal connections.  There’s a reason why most fantasy, sci-fi and Disney heroes are orphans, and it’s the same reason why most detectives are loners and sitcom characters (assuming it’s not a family sitcom specifically) have only strained or distant relationships with their immediate families.  Starting the characters with a clean slate relationship-wise enhances our level of identification by having their emotional state more closely mirror our own lack of connection with their world beyond what we are seeing onscreen. This in turn makes what we’re watching feel more important.  Not only does the lack of a strong safety net, emotional or otherwise, heighten the dramatic stakes for the protagonist and our empathy by making them feel more vulnerable, it also allows for the building of that type of support network to function as a clear arc for the story as it progresses.  Underpinning that is the unspoken assuarance that the characters’ most important relationships are those that we as the audience are “participating” in.  Doesn’t the name Will And Grace imply that that particular relationship is the most important one to those two characters?  If Luke’s attachment to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru remained stronger than his with Leia and Han, wouldn’t the drama of the Star Wars trilogy fall flatter?

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"I love-.."
"I have a dermatologist appointment at 2:15... I'll text you later, though." 

Given how the premise grants the protagonists such an extensive and immovable support network, Sense8 naturally resists the ability to create drama by limiting or threatening it.  That lack of isolation also serves to undercut the progressive themes it trumpets so loudly.  There is no shortage of dialogue telling us how empathy can triumph over the omnipresent forces of bigotry, but the sensate connection is a powerful conceit for showing that.  The importance of that connection would be heightened, dramatically and allegorically, if everywhere else they turned, the sensates were faced with opposition and hostility, leaving them only each other to rely upon.  Instead, everywhere they turn they are faced with…unconditional love and endless, selfless support.  And the forces of bigotry and corruption are rendered the flimsiest of paper tigers, triumphed over handily not just at the end of the series, or each season, or each episode, but essentially each and every scene.

If all the sensates had was each other, that would still be a hell of a lot more than a lot of people (if you have more than seven close friends, good for you!  You’re pretty much crushing this Life thing).  But each of the cluster also has their own little world of supporting characters around them.  Joseph Campbell and the rudiments of dramatic structure would dictate that they be ripped away or even forced into opposition with their prior world as they step into this new one.  But there is only the mildest of actual conflict between their new lives and old, because they all happen to be surrounded by a saintly smorgasbord of endlessly patient paragons of understanding.  This can be rather delightful on a scene by scene basis, but at the cost of neutering any overarching drama that might threaten to develop organically.

For instance, Nomi is a transgender hacker that goes on the run from The Man.  Exciting stuff!  Except The Man is basically one Keystone Kop, who never presents enough threat that she has to, say, leave town, or stop publicly attending family events with her astonishingly beautiful, intelligent, saintly and unflinchingly devoted girlfriend Amanita.  Their relationship is depicted as almost perversely healthy, constantly sickly-sweet, unfailingly supportive, and utterly romantically and sexually fulfilling at all times.  The big dramatic climax of the relationship is when Nomi decides to surprise propose, only for Nita to whip out her own surprise ring she had just bought, so marvelously in sync is this one soul in two bodies. 

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See, it's like The Gift Of The Magi, only with all the irony and melancholy and 
everything that made the story memorable replaced with unbridled exuberance.
I understand why the Wachowskis would feel a compelling need to portray a healthy trans relationship, and avoid the sort of storytelling tropes that have traditionally plagued Tragic Gays. But after a point, it's not even a love story. It's just two people in love.  And it renders Nita one of the most unbelievable parts of a show built around magic psychic kung fu masters. She comes off as a sort of manic pixie dream hacker, a collection of uniformly positive traits masquerading as an actual character, and the lack of anything to "fix" in her also-idealized partner removes even the standard Manic Pixie’s animating purpose. But fine, there is plenty of room to spin drama out of the non-romantic aspects of Nomi’s storyline instead, if the incessantly positive ethos of the show did not resist putting even external pressure on the characters or relationship.  Being on the run and branded and enemy of the state would seem to be kind of harrowing by default, but the pair also enjoy the selfless support of the lesbian community in San Francisco, which hides them from the half-assed federal dragnet.  And that of another brilliant hacker in Bug, who is a bit of a weirdo but also just super-duper stoked to have the opportunity to risk his life for these amazing sprites. And Nita’s intensely well-adjusted polyamorous parental collective, whenever they feel like visiting. 

The only holdout with any reservations about Nomi’s gender transition or outlaw lifestyle is her mother.  And she basically only serves to provide a contrast for her father to play off when he publicly declares his love and support of Nomi’s decision…in his first actual scene in the entire series.  To be clear, it’s the structure more than the content I take issue with here.  If this were the payoff to a longer thread with the father, that would be one thing and the moment may carry some weight. But the conflict is essentially resolved as soon as it is introduced, by everyone involved being just as nice and lovely as possible.  Which is the show's most consistent motif.

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Her sister, meanwhile, is just super happy to have her wedding interrupted
so her maid of honor's personal drama can upstage her.  Not even kidding.

And that’s just one of eight protagonists.  Lito also enjoys an intensely supportive, idealized throupling with his gorgeous, devoted boyfriend and gorgeous, devoted former beard.  His struggles with coming out are another area that would seem to be full of dramatic potential, but his mother immediately and whole-heartedly accepts him, once again resolving what could have been a messy emotional arc in the span of a single scene and in the cleanest, happiest way possible.  When his career as an action star is threatened by his outing, the show demonstrates a rare commitment in dedicating an entire episode to him comically moping before his pseudo-girlfriend makes a phone call and lands him the role of his arthouse comeback dreams.  The girl and boyfriend also have the briefest of flirtations with actual conflict when her parents and his students challenge their publicly nontraditional lifestyles. But to call these challengers flimsy strawmen would be to insult the structural soundness of the brave effigies that hang limply in fields across this great land.  If you think it takes more than a single scene for them to be righteously reprimanded and sent slinking away in shame, or that those scenes come as some sort of climax rather than like 20 minutes into a random middle episode, then I don’t think you’ve been reading this very closely.

Kala is unhappily married to the sweetest, kindest romantic obstacle ever created, who the show flirts with making interesting by having him running a corrupt corporation, only to spring the twist that surprise!  He’s actually been acting shady because he’s working undercover to de-corrupt it.  That her family is doting and only pressures her to stay in the arranged marriage in the most gentle and guileless way should go without saying at this point.  Sun’s brother betrays and imprisons her, but luckily she finds a fellow inmate who is willing to risk her life to save Sun’s, help her escape, and hook her up with another stranger who is also willing to hide her even when the police come looking for the famously violent escaped fugitive. That the officer chasing her promptly falls in love with her should also go without saying.  Sometimes people hold Capheus at gunpoint just to tell him how special and inspiring he is, not that he doesn’t have a loving mother and beautiful/intelligent/saintly love interest and fawning sidekick to do that already.  Wolfgang can’t even get his own fawning sidekick killed off when the show realizes it needs to shoot someone to up the stakes for a season’s climax, and even his supposed enemies in the underworld are extremely quick to fashion him a mighty king among men.  Will ostensibly makes a big sacrifice by addicting himself to heroin to block their enemies access to his mind, but he remains vital and lucid enough to clown those enemies at every turn, and his “recovery” is so perfunctory that this nominally hellish ordeal doubles as an amusingly enthusiastic ode to the wonders of skag.  And his own fawning sidekick is as quick as anyone to commit some moderate treason for a stranger who shows up claiming to be his friend’s new girlfriend.

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"No, really. He never mentioned me, but I'm from Canada Iceland, and we're in love."

It's not that any of these elements are individually terrible or indefensible.  There is a degree to which subverting common or expected dramatic tropes provides a welcome change of pace, and giving underrepresented communities heroes to root for is a laudable goal in itself.  And heck, maybe part of the reason the Wachowskis idealize everyone to such a degree is to make things inclusive enough to let even a basic straight white dude like me know that there is room for me to join the rocking karate-orgy party as a kick-ass ally.  If that was the idea, though, it didn’t work.  Instead of pulled in by the excitement, I found the relentless positivity to drain the story of weight, preventing any real investment in anything or anyone.  I can’t really feel Sun’s desperation at being imprisoned when she spends so much of her time “behind bars” attending exuberant raves, daring heists, blissful orgies, enormous outdoor festivals, and transcendent karaoke sessions.  Or Lito’s depression at losing his superstar status when his rock bottom still involves being invited to lead the biggest Pride parade in the world.  Chalk it up to overweening privilege perhaps, but I have trouble empathizing with the plight of an oppressed character when 50% their screentime is spent in ecstatic celebration.  

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The Christmas Special alone features a joyful communal orgy sequence, a
joyful communal birthday party sequence, a joyful communal Christmas
party sequence, and a joyful communal NYE party sequence. Not even kidding.

Having a happy ending for each of the members of the cluster would be one thing.  But a happy ending doesn’t mean much when it is a tag for a happy beginning and a happy middle.  Conflict is the lifeblood of drama, and by denying the characters genuine obstacles and faults and contradictions, it robs their story of meaning and power.  It becomes something more like representational pornography.  And hey, it’s not as though I’ve got anything against porn, or all of it needs to be for me specifically.  If you loved Sense8, or found its unrelenting optimism a balm in dark times, that's legitimately great. This is not to say “good riddance”, so much as bemoan that it never got the chance to get comfortable enough with itself to hit pause on celebrating its characters and start actually testing them.  If it didn’t have so many great performances and set pieces, if there wasn’t a really good show visible under all the treacle, it wouldn’t be frustrating enough for me to have belabored the points above at such length. 

And it’s certainly not the only example I could cite of this type of well-meant effort at positive representation sapping the drama from the big picture.  I could have done another whole version of this post focusing instead on how The Force Awakens does essentially the same thing with its new heroes, lionizing Rey and sanding off the edges of Finn and Poe to such an extent that they get to play the entire movie on Easy Mode.  It actually bothers me more in that case, where it feels more like an accident borne of the movie being so anxious at the prospect that we won’t like the new characters, or that the internet will cry misogyny if a single scene is allowed to play out without Rey forcibly asserting complete control over her situation.  It leads to a lot of the same issues, but I’ll take the Wachowskis’ evident and genuine enthusiasm for how awesome their characters are over that sweaty eagerness to please every day of the week. 

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To put a finer point on it, it's actually more like terror at
the possibility of ever displeasing, however briefly.

But I still think there’s a sense in which such fully idealized representation is settling for less.  To be perfect is to be, on some level, unreal.  Being an unfailingly virtuous paragon sounds good on paper, but in practice it comes off as phony, and that absolute worst narrative sin – boring.  They say perfect is the enemy of good, and that generally means that obsessing over correcting every minor defect in a thing will prevent it from ever actually getting out in the world.  But in terms of fictional characters, to be perfect is not a good thing at all.  Narratively, to be flawless is to be pointless.  A story doesn’t have to be nice to a character all the time to establish their worthiness as a person.  It only needs to take their struggles seriously.   

You don’t even have to leave Netflix to see that alternative in action.  Orange Is The New Black is not a perfect show by any means, but it has a sprawling, multiethnic cast featuring people of pretty much all sexual and gender orientations.  And because it is not as intent on idealizing them, the characters come off as something more than perfect:  human.  Flawed, funny, annoying, vindictive, generous, lazy and clever and stupid all at once.  Like actual people.  Their stories aren’t always uplifting, or sanitary, but the show’s conviction that they are worth telling anyway speaks more forcefully than all of Sense8’s shouting of positive slogans.  It may be absurd to rate fictional characters against each other in such terms, but Sophia Bursett feels like a much more real person than Nomi Marks.  Because the former has been through some shit, while the latter consistently skates right over it.  Likewise, Rogue One’s motley crew of oddballs and killers feels much more alive and “real” than TFA’s more forcibly friendly trio, and I relate to them more as a result.  The masses obviously don’t agree with me on that one, but that’s okay. 

What worries me, though, is that I could see the sensibilities at play here gaining rather than losing steam in the near future.  Because look, I’m aware that this could be read as so much bitching by a straight white dude about how he won’t stand for dem dar’ queerz and wimminz getting too big for their genre britches.  But what I really take issue with here is not the sentiment underpinning the depictions, but the impatience that mars the execution by refusing to even feint at the possibility of an unhappy outcome or vulnerable moment, for fear of scaring off the audience or provoking the dreaded hot take. The desperation to avoid criticism for less-than-perfect depictions of any particular demographic should become less acute with time, as having a lead who is not a white dude becomes more common and thus less fraught with import.  But the impatience of something like TFA paying such big dividends gives me pause, since as I said before that entire movie that lives in palpable terror of displeasing its audience for a single second. And audiences only seem to be getting more and more plugged in and loud and entitled when it comes to monitoring the creative process, talking to the creators, and at least in the case of Rick And Morty, harassing them as well as innocent employees of large corporations that try to capitalize on that audience’s loudness and entitlement.

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Rick And Morty fans, heal thyself

I don’t see that access changing any time soon, so I can only hope that going forward, artists become more adept at engaging with audiences without letting that noise steer the ship. Because in general, audiences are not to be trusted.  They are experts at determining what they like, but decidedly unexpert at discerning why they like it.  They responded JJ Abrams’ style because he’s the divorced dad who will feed them ice cream for breakfast - the ice cream in this metaphor being an entire trilogy worth of payoffs delivered in a single movie, without the proper set up or any real room for the hero to grow moving forward. If you ask the kids, they'll tell you they only want to eat ice cream, because it's their favorite, and their dumb, soft brains don't realize how unsustainable that is as a lifestyle.  They don’t understand how much the structure and vegetables that mom forces on them during the week allow them to appreciate those sweet treats all the more.  Good storytellers understand that, and they accordingly design narratives to have long and significant valleys, rather than just leap from peak to peak to peak.  Hopefully Rian Johnson can be that mom for Star Wars, introducing some structure and discipline to the characters Abrams spoiled in his eagerness to please.  Maybe he’ll find something actually interesting for the terrific actors TFA assembled to play, instead of just being amazing and winsome in each and every moment.  Because you can’t have ice cream for every meal, no matter what Sense8 would have you believe.