Sense8 is a difficult series to get started. The focus shifts constantly between characters and locations without any shared story (or any hope of a shared story). Plus, it takes time for the ten characters — 8 principals, and two marginal — to accumulate enough screen time to gather substance and come to life. All of this added up to an urge to move on to other things, but I remained “invested despite,” and I stuck with the series. I suspect some of it has to do with loving Speed Racer and some of it with my head-over-heels admiration of Lana Wachowski (for reasons).
Whatever the reasons, I kept watching, and things began falling into place. Step one: the Karaoke number shared across continents at the end of episode four, “What’s Going On?” Step Two: the genuinely moving conversation between the African man and the Korean woman and the specter of the terrible wedding in episode five, “Art is Like Religion.” By the endlessly screencapped episode five, “Demons,” the full-on crazy, pot-head on acid concept of what the show was doing began to sink in. Plus it was clear that Lana and the fraternal unit were committed to keeping things both relentlessly sexy (Max Remelt!) and jaw-droopingly beautiful (South Korea! India!). I was hooked.
But cross-cultural, cross-continental (mental not physical?) sexy time aside, what is going on here?
My sense is that the Wachoski’s are making classical cinema but that they are carefully breaking two fundamental rules of the form and exploring the consequences. The first broken rule relates to scope. A classical Hollywood feature is 90 to 120 minutes long. In special cases, especially auteur or prestige films, a runtime might stretch to 180 minutes. Sense8 constructs a story that is reportedly complete and that spans sixty episodes or five seasons (lets call them acts). This amounts to roughly 2900 minutes of story. Managing something of this length, I now realize, poses specific challenges. For example, I’ve watched 12 episodes, and by the end I recognized familiar signals that indicate the conclusion of “Act One.” In other words, after 10 hours of television, the initial presentation of the conflict was complete and the drama was about to begin. This is — judged by any ordinary standard — insane. How do you develop a coherent story of such length that is barely (and perhaps non-) episodic? Sense8 is attempting it and appears to be operating within the traditional structure of the five-act play. That’s interesting.
The second rule of classical cinema that the series breaks relates to the construction of space across the cut. Méliès made magic by moving objects in front of a fixed, static camera. Hollywood constructed stable, coherent spaces by cutting from one camera view to another in a rational, cumulative sequence organized by visual matches between shots. Sense8 uses the matching of traditional Hollywood editing in the service of an impossible, magical space. Scenes within the series occur — almost by default — in multiple locations. Conversations, for example, regularly take place between people separated by thousands of miles. The editing, however, takes no account of these physical realities and cuts shots together by the same logic that governs the representation of a conversation at a single table in a restaurant in the most banal of romantic comedies. By the end of the first season, scene after scene plays out in two or three (or more) locations, characters bounce back and forth between locations, and all of these shifts — organized and enabled by the techniques of classical editing — cohere without confusion. The result is a representation of a purely fictional mental space that I feel I have seen and that is integral to the plot but that makes no sense at all when I try to describe it to people who have not watched the show because it is entirely fantastic and completely experiential.
This is all fascinating — and portentous and overblown (yes, I admit it) — but also very entertaining.
I ended the season eager to find out if Netflix would spring for another season. It turns out they have. So I’m excited, but, because I am greedy, I would like to hear that they have green-lighted the full five seasons: I want to see the entire arc and how it works.