Thanks to the advent of Netflix in Australia (finally), I can once again legally watch all of the television shows and movies I want. Having Netflix whilst I was living in the UK, then moving back to Australia and surviving without it for the last two years, it now makes me appreciate it even more. One of the trends developing out of the streaming model is Netflix generated content – of which more and more are popping up in the Netflix library.
Sense8 is one of these (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers). It’s got really strong credentials – it comes from the Wachowski brothers who directed a small series of films called The Matrix Trilogy, as well as J. Michael Straczynski who developed the story of Thor and World War Z. The cast – although not really high-profile yet – are incredibly strong and they work really well, considering how difficult it would’ve been to shoot a show like this (eight main cast, nine different countries – I feel for the ADs). It’s actually just been renewed for a second season, so this is a very timely blog post.
Sense8 is about eight strangers across the world, dealing with their own lives and problems, realise that there are other people in their heads that they are connected to. They can step from their own point of view (say, in London) into the ‘sensate’ they’re speaking to (say, in Chicago). They can touch and feel each other – even take over their bodies and use skills that they have that the other sensate might not.
Considering all these story elements, it would be very easy for it to get unwieldy and hard to keep track of. I mean, when I watch Game of Thrones with my mum (yeah, yeah), we have to pause the episode at the head of every scene and recap where we last saw them and who they belong to (‘This is Reek, who was Theon Greyjoy, who was best mates with Rob Stark – he’s the one who’s the eldest son of Sean Bean – you know, the one who was in Lord of the Rings?’). It’s easy for a big story with lots of elements to lose its way.
Sense8 counters this by taking advantage of the fact that 61% of Netflix users binge watch their television shows (i.e. watch five or six episodes in one sitting). A 12 episode series gives the audience more than enough time to spend with each character, learn their worlds, their friends, their enemies. If anything, it spends a little too long keeping everyone separate – half of the conceit of the show is how these eight characters learn about each other’s existences and how they’re going to come together to survive. I wanted more overlapping action between everyone earlier – using each other to explore new worlds, test new skills, figure out what this connection to each other meant.
That being said, the characters are easily the best thing about this show. When the plot flagged a little in the middle and I got a bit restless with no massive, cheeky interaction between the characters (I would’ve loved to have seen Wolfgang causing a bit of havoc in Will’s life when he was bored), it was the strong connection between Wolfgang and Kala, Will and Riley that kept me hooked. Everyone is so completely different and there are so many different types of representation here – it’s unlike any other show on television.
Nomi is transgender, living with her black girlfriend Amanita; Lito is a gay Mexican actor; Will is a bi-curious cop from Chicago; Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London; Wolfgang is a safe-cracker in Berlin; Capheus is the happiest bus driver you’ll meet in Nairobi; Kala is a pharmaceutical scientist in Mumbai and Sun is the brains behind her family’s big business in Seoul.
Seriously, you would never find this cast on network television.
This diversity is what helps to make the episodes that aren’t as pacy still interesting to watch. Never underestimate the power of a character exploring a completely new world for the audience. Each world is completely unique to the character and each character would respond entirely differently to each situation. As long as your audience can empathise with your character – that they make your audience feel something (love, hate, admiration, loathing – it doesn’t always have to be a positive emotion) – that’s the key. I’m not a gay Mexican movie star, but I know how it feels to have to hide your true self. I’m not a safe-cracker in Berlin, but I know what it’s like to be under enormous amounts of pressure with a ticking clock.
Find the universality in your character and then draw it out to make your audience connect with and feel something. The emotional journey will always help carry the audience through if the plot has flabby, slower moments.
That being said, don’t foresake plot for character! It’s a fine balance, but when it’s done right, it’s amazing.