Thursday, June 15, 2017

Chapter 119: In Which I Discuss Sense8 Being Cancelled :(

For your information, I still don't have an agent.

Netflix canceled Sense8. I'm not happy about this. First, it was a good show. A sci-fi actioner with compelling characters and storylines. Second, it was the only TV show I can recall recently that celebrated diversity and inclusion. So of course it had to go, 'cause that stuff isn't cool anymore.

It was also a show with a diverse cast that addressed a number of social issues. Representation is important in giving oppressed peoples a voice, and Sense8 was great about that, specifically in addressing LGBT issues. But I'll get to that.

Here is when I knew I was watching something special. I was caught up in the characters' individual stories and the macro plot of the evil corporation coming after them. If I had to pick a favorite sub-plot, it would probably be Leto's, because I loved him and Hernando so much. I liked that the show wasn't afraid to show a grown-ass man being vulnerable and sensitive like that character was, and to not treat his being a "drama queen" as some terrible weakness.

I don't think there was a single bad storyline (they even got me to care about the cop) and watching the characters' interactions was a lot of fun. The show cost a ton of money to make and all of it was onscreen. It looked expensive.

But there was an outlier. What's with this chick walking around Iceland being depressed? At first it seemed Riley's storyline would be about her running from drug dealers, which I was down with. But no. All the money she gets from the drug robbery gone bad she dumps in a beggar's hat and she runs back home, where she spends the latter half of season one reconnecting with loved ones and quietly musing on her traumas.

All of the sensate cluster lead exciting lives. A super hacker! A movie star! A safe cracker! Even the pharmacist Kala, who is on the surface a regular person, has a storyline where she enters wealth through her new marriage, and has to navigate Indian politics as an outsider.

Riley does not have a compelling political/crime storyline. And she's not special like the others. Sure, she's a DJ, but she's not the best DJ. Her DJ powerz! don't ever come in handy like Kala's chemistry powerz! The character's storyline is primarily internal.

If the Wachowskis simply needed a damselly love interest for Will to rescue at the end of the season, they could have cut out all the stuff having to deal with her dead child and still accomplished that. But they really took time and care in developing her storyline and humanizing her. And in the end, it's Riley who saves the day. She overcomes her fears in order to rescue Will, through the brave act of . . . getting in a car and driving it down the road.

And that was how I knew, once the season was over, that I was watching something special. Sense8 works under the premise that a DJ trying to heal emotionally is just as epic and important as somebody having to fight their evil brother from a prison cell. The show believes that all life matters. Not All Life Matters, meaning shut up about your oppression, but really that all life matters. And they put it up there onscreen. Even the characters' sidekicks were compelling.

Sense8 was the type of show that actually got me excited for streaming services as a form of entertainment. A big budget, R-rated action sci-fi drama about the power of empathy. A show that is violent and sexy and woke. That's about as weird and niche as you can get, and opens up new possibilities in long-form filmmaking. HBO or Showtime wouldn't touch something like that. But Netflix prioritized it . . . for a little while.

Then came the show's second season, where everything that could go right went right. Instead of doubling down on action and conflict for its own sake, the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski doubled down on the characters. I loved seeing Leto come out the closet, or Nomi deal with all the family stuff around her sister's wedding, or Kala navigating marriage. There are so many moments of simple human connection in this season and it's really powerful.

The Kenyan storyline gets expanded to include upper and middle class Kenyans. Leto chooses love over his career and has to deal with the consequences. The asexual-seeming Sun isn't asexual at all and gets a hot love interest. Wolfgang gets invited to become a big time mobster and turns it down because he doesn't want the power. Will is physically neutralized and has to use his smarts to beat the bad guys. Riley, who at first looks like she's tagging alone in Will's story as the girlfriend, ends up sharing the storyline with him instead. The interracial lesbian couple has as much prominence as the heteronormative white one.

And, most surprising, the sensates are a team. They support and help each other. Where is the bickering? Where is the alpha male posturing? Maybe on every other bullshit show, but not this one.
Every episode the showrunners do something unexpected and subversive. The world building got deeper while the plotlines became explicitly became about social justice issues. I admired how the show wore its heart on its sleeve to speak for the marginalized.

That's why people got upset it was cancelled. That's why there are petitions to bring it back/finish it. A show about social justice done with that care and quality is something a lot of people have never seen before. And might never see again.

I've come to the conclusion that the Golden Age of Television really isn't that impressive. They say it started with The Sopranos, a show about a middle-aged white man fighting his own feelings of emasculation to basically conquer the world. Tony's crew is a tiny gang of old men, drug addicts, and psychopaths who shoot civilians in broad daylight yet get away with everything, and ultimately he defeats his more powerful enemies in the New York mob. Because who needs compelling drama when you can get wish fulfillment? This started the whole "antihero" formula that has basically repeated The Sopranos' throughline over and over.

My favorite cable drama ever is, of course, The Wire. An intelligent and critical look at the fall of the American city with a multicultural cast. So it was surprising to me when, a few years later, everyone got into Breaking Bad. And I'm like "What's so special about a damn meth dealer?"

What made it special was it had a white protagonist. Walter White defeats his feelings of emasculation by defeating the stupid people of color around him and rising to the top of the drug trade. Never mind that the Latinos he deals with have been doing it longer than him; he's naturally smarter and more hard-working and they don't stand a chance. It's a white supremacist outlaw fantasy that is repeated in shows like Weeds and Orange is the New Black: a middle-class to upper middle-class white person moves into a criminal space and proves themselves the baddest on the block through intelligence and ruthlessness.

Over and over and over. White man maneuvers to the top of the political scene. White man maneuvers to the top of the biker gang scene. White man maneuvers to the top of the marketing industry. White man maneuvers to the top of the zombie-slaying industry. And now that we have an "antihero" as president, we can watch The Sopranos every day on C-SPAN! What is continuously touted as intelligent, gritty television is some stuff Hemingway could have written.

It actually makes me miss the days of network television, when advertisers required that the shows be about good people in order to sell products. Mary Tyler Moore was a hard-working and decent person who tried to better herself. Murphy Brown was smart and ambitious, but also a team player. Goddamn Steve Urkel was a creep with horrible boundary issues but he invented time machines and stuff in order to help people.

In this way, Sense8 seems like a throwback to the days of The Andy Griffith Show, where there is a basic assumption of the characters' decency. They are flawed but not in irredeemable ways. Yes, Sun kills people, but only in self-defense.

There was, of course, an outlier in the character of Wolfgang, the sexy German badass who on any other show would be the sole protagonist. Wolfgang is undeniably not a good person. He's a thief and a murderer who kills his own family members without a shred of remorse.

Thing is, the character exists to be a foil, and to prove a point. The characters' sensate connection is so strong that it often overrides ideas of common societal morality. That is why Capheus, who comes from a very conservative part of the world, will participate in a bisexual orgy. That is why the cop Will will help Wolfgang murder his uncle, and why nobody judges his life choices. And Wolfgang will step in to help the others, who are all people he wouldn't care about otherwise. Wolfgang exists to show what it really means to empathize with another person, even one who on paper you might not like. It speaks to a larger point that so many of our ideas of right/wrong are societal constructs. If we were really able to get in the mind of someone society has deemed a criminal, would we think of him as a demon, or as a person with fears and desires like ourselves?

It's hard not to be cynical that Sense8 gets canceled during a time when marginalized people are under direct threat from the fascist right. It is easier to kill and torture people when they are invisible, an alien other thought only as stereotypes. I doubt your average Trump supporter has ever met a Muslim, so of course they buy the propaganda shoved at them about raving eastern hordes. A show like Sense8 getting canceled early is a victory for xenophobes, in that it elevates their voices by erasing others'. I tell myself that the victory of oppression will not be accomplished through TV shows, and it won't, but there's something to be said for representation. Then again, because it's a TV show, I can't get too upset. There are far bigger threats.

For twenty years, the Wachowski sisters have been some of the most progressive, subversive, ambitious filmmakers of their generation. Lesbian love story? Check. Live-action anime adaptation? Check. An Alan Moore adaptation that actually works? There's nothing they can't do. (I forgave them the Matrix sequels a long time ago.) They were too big for Hollywood and now they're too big for television. While I don't know where they go from here, I think they just made their masterpiece, and viewing it was an exciting experience.