Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Saving SENSE8 and a Few Other Internet-First Shows, Too

In case you haven't heard of it, SENSE8 is a new genre show from The Wachowskis and it's available on Netflix.  I feel like there really wasn't very much publicity for this show.  I hope this show does well despite the lack of ads.  Is it perfect? Well, I'm writing this, aren't I?  That means it needs some kind of saving and it needs more than better advertising because I almost gave up on it several times and would do so no matter how much it had been hyped.

First, what works?

The premise of SENSE8 is that eight people, around the globe, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, discover that they are somehow psychically connected. Not only that, they can temporarily take over each other's body, kind of like Scott Bakula's character in QUANTUM LEAP.  It's a pretty neat concept, but there's a catch and I call it Internet-First Syndrome.  I'll explain that in a bit.  Before that, more of what worked.

The premise.  The premise worked really well and it is a fascinating concept. I don't want to go into too much detail without a spoiler alert (keep reading for that), so just trust me when I say that it is a great premise for a show about people (as opposed to shows about specific conflicts).

The acting is largely perfect.  I think every single actor on the show seemed to really get where their character was coming from.  What I loved the most about the casting was the diversity.  Anyone who knows me, knows I'm tired of seeing white faces everywhere.  Especially white male faces.  While there are a couple of them in this show, there are also Latino faces, African faces, Asian and Indian faces, and even a trans woman's face.  She is also played by a trans woman, as well, which is nice.  A trans character is not the only non-traditional story element in this show.

The themes explored are varied and fascinating.  This isn't just your typical, X-FILES rip-off where there is a single through-line and we spend the entire series in service of it like Sony Playstation Network's POWERS.  While there is a general level of predictability in it, there are plenty of surprises and really, really, wonderful moments for both the story and the characters.  I did find certain aspect of the story to be lacking, mostly in the main plotline that ties them all together.  I'll get to more on that in a bit.  I'm still gushing...

The story isn't just diverse in themes, it actually veers away from the main story quite a bit into really interesting corners of human culture that mainstream genre shows and movies really don't venture very often.  This is simply not a show that would ever be made via traditional Hollywood channels (literally and figuratively).  It's so much of what I long for in American storytelling.  I'm glad I stuck with it, though it really was frustrating for the first four or five episodes.

So far, you might wonder where the bout of IFS is involved.  Well, right here.

SENSE8, DAREDEVIL, and POWERS are all Stricken with Internet-First Syndrome

IFS is a syndrome that I have witnessed now in three different shows that have been released on the Internet, first.  These are shows that seem to think the fact that they are on the Internet first, they have a license to waste the viewer's time.  Of course, they look at it as "taking advantage of the commercial-free structure of Internet-First TV" but there's a fine-line between letting your characters and story breathe and wasting our time.

In my posts on Netflix's DAREDEVIL (part one  and two) I explained how it really took its time establishing the title character.  I mean, calling the series DAREDEVIL at all, was pretty much false advertising as the guy we know from the comics only showed up in the last episode, and even then could be argued that he wasn't the guy from the comics.  But the length of time and the number of episodes we had to sit through before we got what we came for really felt disrespectful, to me.

While I feel like DAREDEVIL could have spent it's time better, the whole of SPN's POWERS first season could have been boiled down to a two-hour TV movie.  There was that much redundancy in that series.  I'll go into more detail in a future post, but for now, I'll just say that there was one real storyline that had a bunch of bland, useless bits of flesh hanging off of its bones.  Flesh that really only served to show off how predictable and cliché that single storyline was.  I never read the POWERS comic, but if it is as much of a WATCHMEN wannabe as the show is, I never will.  My point is, that it took forever to get to the parts that were supposed to be good and wasted our time with tons of story padding.

SENSE8, meanwhile spends about 4 or 5 episodes letting us get to know our too-numerous cast of characters.  And rather than just making their lives interesting (which they do) the Wachowskis (best known for the MATRIX movies) and series creator J. Michael Straczynski (aka JMS, best known for his opus BABYLON 5), crowbar in scenes exploring their connection with each other.  The problem I have with this is that the way their connection works is established pretty quickly and seeing all eight characters go through the process of discovery is really boring since none of them react much differently from each other.

"YES, YOU CAN JUMP INTO OTHER PEOPLE'S BODIES AND TALK TO EACH OTHER PSYCHICALLY! LET'S MOVE ON!" was pretty much what I was yelling at my screen after the second episode.  I get that some of the scenes helped establish the universe of the story, but very few of them were really required.  I'm a big fan of universe-building--it's my favorite thing about the Marvel Cinematic(& TV) Universe, but redundancy drives me nuts.  It's inefficient and wastes the viewer's time.

Don't get me wrong--I love that the Wachowskis, JMS, and the folks behind DAREDEVIL, want to really take advantage of the commercial-free structure of Internet-first TV shows, but it really got frustrating.  Especially when the overarching storyline really isn't that interesting or dynamic.  All of the repetition just serves to remind us that there really isn't a strong story skeleton here.  Like DAREDEVIL, it's ultimately just a season-long pilot episode doing what any traditionally produced TV show would do in a single, first episode.

The good news is that SENSE8 does enough with the character's subplots to make it worth suffering through the boring, repetitive stuff.  However, I'd hesitate to watch it again.  Especially since we really don't get any satisfying answers as to where this connection comes from or why it happens at all.  We get tiny little clues spoon fed to us with the skill of a UPS man by one of the 8 who basically appears when the script is about to lose us and then explains everything we might be wondering about at that moment.  I took to calling this character "Exposition Man" for obvious reasons.  It was like that exposition scene in CHILDREN OF MEN where Michael Caine explains everything, or that other scene in THE DAVINCI CODE where Ian McKellen explains everything.  However, in SENSE8, it happens a couple times PER EPISODE during the first quarter of the season.  It was super frustrating.

What's worse is that the badguys are never fully explained, nor is the reason for them going after the SENSE8 crew in the first place.  It's like X-FILES without the clarity.  (!)

I assume that, if Netflix gives SENSE8 a second season, the badguys will be explored more.  In the meantime, it is solely the diversity of the cast and their genuinely interesting stories that make this a show worth watching despite its flaws.

Saving SENSE8 is Simple

Do one of two things:

  1. Tell Netflix that they're only getting 8 episodes and cut out all the redundancies from the scripts.  I mean seriously, how many times do we need to see the same characters react in shock as they find themselves in someone else's life?
  2. Deliver 12 episodes as promised, but instead of showing all the redundancy, use the same screen time to develop those bad guys.  There was never a real sense of who or why their lives were in danger or who they were in danger from.  It ended up feeling like a very contrived sense of danger when obstacles in each person's own life weren't enough to power the story.

X-FILES did the amorphous-bad-guy-entity-with-mysterious-motives-and-goals thing really well.  SENSE8 does not.  Taking this second option would solve a lot of what is wrong with SENSE8, in my opinion.

Freema Agyeman from DOCTOR WHO and actual
trans actress Jamie Clayton playing a trans character,
in SENSE8.  So much diversity in this single photo!
SPOILER ALERT: I Still Really Liked SENSE8 (Now Entering a SPOILER ZONE!)

I'm really excited about a season 2 of SENSE8.  The premise is really strong and builds upon the relationships many of us have with the Internet.  That's ultimately how this psychic connection works--it's like a social network.  Need a friend?  Tweet at them.  Need to know how to do something?  Search for a YouTube tutorial.  Want to visit another location? Watch someone's Periscope video.  Want to help a friend?  Send them an FB message with words of support.

Only imagine you didn't need social networks or any technology to do these things.  That is the kind of connection these characters have and, the way the show structures their individual arcs, it really holds your attention.  Imagine the Avengers--only each character is on opposite sides of the Earth from each other.  Cap needs Thor's ability to channel lightning?  No problem--Thor telepathically teleports there and voila.  Hawkeye needs to defuse a high tech bomb?  No problem, Tony Stark can just soul-swap with Hawkeye, QUANTUM LEAP-style, and save the day.  It's all a really wonderful metaphor for friendship, whether it's Internet-based or not.

I do wish they'd make it SENSE6, though, because 8 characters, who are all really interesting, is an awful lot to keep track of.  I found myself getting character whiplash every so often because we'd follow someone from one part of the world and, just as we were getting used to following them, BAM!  We'd be in some other part of the world with some other character.  It was as though the show was literally changing channels on us.  One minute, we're watching a show about a trans woman in San Francisco and the next we're watching a show about a African bus driver in Nairobi.  There were also little culture clashes with every channel change, too.  Generally, I like the idea, but changing between eight different channels got tiresome.

Is SENSE8 in dire need of being saved?  No, definitely not.  But some exec at Netflix could have felt the same way I did only they might give into the urge to quit early.  I wouldn't blame them.  That said, I hope that Netflix does see clear to do another season.  This show has great themes, casting and characters.  They need to live on and the spirit of this connection they have is a very easy metaphor for the Internet, which we actually can use quite similarly to the way these characters do.

But I'm not kidding about Internet-First Syndrome.  People behind these shows need to fight the urge to go too wild with their breathing room.  There are reasons that traditional commercial TV is structured the way it is.  It's not just about commercials.  The structure forces pacing that isn't to fast or too slow for an average audience member.  Plus, we're all used to it.  So, just because you have the time to fill, doesn't mean you can just throw whatever you want in there.  I see this kind of thing in traditional TV shows from time-to-time, too.  This mainly happens when the episode order is just too big for the story powering the series.  Hm, maybe I should rename Internet-First Syndrome, then.  Maybe "Too-Many-Episodes-Total-Ordered" Syndrome?  That make the acronym "TOMETO".  Nahhh...

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