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Sense8 is the Wachowskis and Straczynski attempting to explore the ranges and limits of empathy: how these eight characters work is that they feel what the other is feeling, they connect, they are able to literally transport themselves into the place and situation of another.

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By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: July 1, 2015

Sense8

After Jupiter Ascending, a movie that made sense to everyone who has a Tumblr account and no one else, the story was supposed to be: This is it! No more large-scale works from the Wachowskis! They’ve reached financial ruin, that’s the end for them!

Four months later, they’ve finished Sense8, a 12-part television series, seven parts of which are directed by the brother-sister duo. It lacks the CG-heavy palette found in Jupiter Ascending and Speed Racer, but continues their narrative experimentation and loopy sense of sincere humanism in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Cloud Atlas.

In that work, the Wachowskis and co-director Tom Tykwer (who returns to direct two episodes and compose the score along with Johnny Klimek) bent and swept through millennia, locating and resuscitating “current” mistakes and enlightenments as merely pinpricks in a continuum. These are, on an epic scale, the questions artists in human drama bump up against, but rarely choose to dive into: is change actually possible, and if so, what does it look like?

Where Cloud Atlas was, for the most part, a melancholy survey of history, where progress is found in the passing on of memories and the flattening out of racial differences, Sense8 is rooted in a present where global connection and constant awareness do not necessarily lead to greater understanding, but could.

The Wachowskis, writing with J. Michael Straczynski (known for TV sci-fi, particularly Babylon 5 and, uh, Ninja Assassin) have not radically altered their approach to dialogue and scene-setting since The Matrix: back-and-forth planning and questions and deadpan humour broken up by monologues, rumbling with thematic overtones. But what Sense8, like Cloud Atlas before it, represents is a visually structured approach to the question of information overload and human connection in 2015. Tykwer and Klimek’s piano-action and synth-drama soundtrack add a lot to the show, but you could watch Sense8 silently and still understand what’s going on.

This approach would be basically impossible outside of the new model of television that Netflix has created. With Sense8, the Wachowskis and their collaborators, cast, and crew were able to make the entire season without interruption, without seeing instant feedback to the first few episodes of the show as broadcast caught up to production, with the knowledge that most viewers will watch the show multiple episodes at a time, and that the possibility of a viewer tuning in mid-season to check out the show and ending up bewildered by a complicated plot is basically gone. As a result, for many of its episodes, particularly the first four, Sense8 rarely moves like other television shows: plot arcs extend far beyond single episodes; mysteries are quickly resolved, then developed, rather than teased; dramatic and action climaxes do not always come at the end of episodes, and when they do, they pick up instantly at the beginning of the next.

And then there is the plot: eight parallel stories that converge and expand and combine at any given moment. Each might conform, at times, to generic expectations, but as in all the Wachowskis’ work, normalcy is a fabric made to be ripped apart. So a DJ in London (Riley, played by Tuppence Middleton), shocked after witnessing a murder, finds herself in the mind of a police officer in Chicago (Will, Brian J. Smith). Will becomes aware of the entire “cluster” of consciousnesses that he is linked to through a talk by Jonas (Naveen Andrews, familiar to sci-fi audiences as Sayid from Lost), and tries to help a woman in San Francisco being held in a hospital against her will (Nomi, Jamie Clayton). When they need more help, in comes a private bus driver from Nairobi (Capheus, Aml Ameen); when a confrontation arises, a Seoul kickboxer (Sun, Doona Bae) lends a hand. Sun is also tied up in a family business embezzlement case, much like the competition-fuelled family crime in Berlin a thief is trying to evade (Wolfgang, Max Riemelt), and the secrets that could undo the acting career of a Mexico City action idol (Lito, Miguel Angel Silvestre). And through their consciousness-sharing, Wolfgang falls in love with a woman who is engaged to be married in Mumbai (Kala, Tina Desai).

Sense8 is not a show about superpowers, though when some of the characters team up, it’s the same mixture of selfless charity and juxtaposition humour that drives The Avengers. Sense8 is the Wachowskis and Straczynski attempting to explore the ranges and limits of empathy: how these eight characters work is that they feel what the other is feeling, they connect, they are able to literally transport themselves into the place and situation of another. There is no “power,” just imaginative re-setting, which is shown through simple camera tricks, pans, mirrors, verbal bridges, sound cues. But unlike parallel stories in other time-spanning narratives, in Sense8 this takes work, sometimes drops off, is never exactly as the characters wish it could happen — except, that is, for the few moments where the show launches into a cross-cutting explosion of montage, in one culminating moment like the emotional catharsis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, minus the anger; another appears like a fractal image of The Matrix Reloaded’s fuck party; and in one like the mid-movie split of The Double Life of Veronique on ecstasy, the camera travelling over a concert hall, plunging through birth and the afterlife from one second to the next.

Wallace Shawn wrote recently of filmmakers who are not content with a single model of successful narrative, who feel the need to add on, change, undo and re-construct rather than repeat.

“Their films show a restless, hungry desire to test themselves by constantly doing things that are completely different from what they’ve done previously,” he says. “It’s all risk all the time.”

This risk means people might wish the Wachowskis only made more movies like The Matrix, as if they were factory parts. But the challenge they’re continually making to themselves — to escape realism and shot-reverse shot (Speed Racer), and now to multiply and stream between narrative threads — suggests artists who believe that film and television have yet to exhaust the possibilities of modernism.

Sense8 adopts some of the popular attributes of television: the actors, despite being shuttled between nine main locations, keep their scenes loose and grounded, wrapping around the script’s sometimes convoluted science or abrupt sincerity — none of the eight main characters is noticeably weaker than another, and none of them feels like a b-plot that has to be sat through to get to what really matters.

By the end of the season, almost none of the plot arcs announced at the start have reached their conclusion (no marriages, massive showdowns, or complete escapes), but that’s because the Wachowskis’ aims are more toward the gradual exploration of connection, rather than the usual television way of surprise developments. (In this the Wachowskis are aided by Straczynski’s TV experience — apparently four other seasons, should renewal happen, are already outlined.) The last two episodes venture into some of the sci-fi arbitrary what-the-hell-ness that the rest of the series avoids, but what’s really going on is an exploration of inner space, the thought processes that happen, in some ways, beyond our control, and how art, acting, and the empathy they direct audiences toward might expand them.

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