How do you imagine a life you could never live? Though not really a theme, this problem is at the heart of Netflix’s new original series Sense8, created by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, and heavily influenced by Tom Tykwer. Like many fantastical or science fictional premises, Sense8’s premise is a wish fulfillment: not — as is typical of this genre and the Wachowskis’ earlier work — the wish fulfillment of the disempowered middle school nerd stuffed into a locker, but rather the Mary Sue desire of a mature, white American writer/auteur who has discovered that an entire world is “out there,” one that the maker doesn’t know how to imagine.
The premise in a nutshell (and mild spoilers follow throughout this article): humanity has evolved a new subspecies, the “sensate,” who can share the thoughts, feelings, memories, skills, and experiences of other sensates. A sensate can “give birth” to a group of adult sensates, tying them together into a “cluster,” that can and does access each other without having to come in physical contact first. The cluster must be composed of eight sensates who were all born at the exact same time, which necessarily means that they are scattered all over the world. They can use each other’s languages, knowledge, and skills, and experience each other’s experiences firsthand. You can see already how incredibly attractive these abilities would be to Americans who wish to depict a new global status quo, but grew up monolingual in an imperialist center.
I’m describing, of course, the Wachowskis, who share entire writing and production credits with J. Michael Straczynski, but are the obvious spiritual core and drivers of this piece. Very little of Straczynski’s earlier work in superhero cartoons, space opera, and short-arc TV drama shows up here, except his expertise with the television format. Don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed with his light touch. You don’t see his hand in this at all, and I give entire credit and blame for this series to the Wachowskis, whose vision shines through. (Much more apparent is the influence of Tom Tykwer, who only directed two episodes, but whose pacing and elegiac grittiness is felt throughout.)
The Wachowskis step onto the stage here as fully developed aesthetic internationalists, embracing the equality of diverse world cultures, and espousing the universality of the human experience. You can see the Wachowskis’ development into this — philosophy? — throughout their oeuvre, pushed by a desire to depict true diversity.
It’s something you can see in the Matrix trilogy already, which was limited by the Wachowskis’ extremely limited white American perspective. The works they adapted subsequently (V for Vendetta, Speed Racer, Ninja Assassin) were training wheels: the developing Wachowski worldview refracted through international pop culture artifacts. Cloud Atlas feels like a culmination of this growth, the moment they discovered where they really wanted to go: towards a philosophical simultaneity through extremely diverse global cultures. In Sense8 you see them finally taking the training wheels off and attempting to originate their own simultaneous, diverse-culture-unifying fictions.
It’s a beautiful vision, if you believe in universality. Let’s assume for a moment that you do. It’s a deeply worthy, exciting, and — dare I say it? — moral ambition. And it half-succeeds; which means it also half-fails.
There should be word for the exhilaration of a half-success coupled with the glowing disappointment of the half-failure, that two-sided coin. People who don’t speak German would say that there must be a long-ass German word for it. There isn’t, but German has the virtue of allowing someone to make a half-assed attempt at coining it. Ehrgeitzversagensschoene? I mention this, because this is one of the primary failures of the show: it attaches itself to Americans’ perceptions of how things are in other idioms, as much as, or more than, it attaches to how things actually are.
To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes, and of life in non-American western countries is suffused with tourist-board clichés. The protagonist in Nairobi is a poor man whose mother has AIDS and whose life is ruled by gangs; in Mumbai we have a woman in a STEM career marrying a man she doesn’t love and engaging in Bollywood dance numbers; in Korea we have a patriarchally oppressed wealthy corporate woman who also happens to be a kickass martial artist; in Mexico City we follow a telenovela actor. London and Reykjavik are filmed using tourist locations and anonymous interiors.
Worse, the filmic clichés of each country are brought to bear on the production in each location — each organized by a different director: Nairobi is sweaty, garish, earth-toned, radiantly shabby; Mumbai is multicolored, and Hindu iconned, full of the jewelry, silks, flowers, and jubilant crowds that burst out of classic Bollywood; Seoul is clean to the point of sterility, with little patches of grass and mirrors and windows everywhere, a grey, hi-tech aesthetic; Mexico City is jewel-toned, rife with skulls, full of melodrama deliberately reminiscent of the telenovela; etc. I believe, quite literally, that the filmmakers primarily learned about these other cultures through their films, and considered that enough.
And finally, the pop-cultural elements of the show are all American. There’s no evidence of local or national culture influencing how the non-American characters view themselves or live their lives. The Kenyan sensate idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme (who is, granted, not American, but known for his role in American action films). The German sensate claims Conan the Barbarian quotes as his personal philosophy. The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem “What’s Goin’ On?” and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag. Where there’s no American cultural lead — in Korea and Mexico, and even in the Ganesh-worshipping Indian sensate’s life — the characters’ life philosophies are a blank.
The Wachowskis take advantage of the apparent international ascendancy of American pop culture to unify disparate cultures, when the way American pop works on non-western cultures is often counterintuitive to Western minds. Sense8 also displays a profound lack of recognition of local pop cultures even when they would definitely have influenced such characters. In the show, American pop is specific, non American pop is generalized and clichéd, as in the Bollywood dance, or entirely absent.
The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views. It’s like Stephen Colbert’s idea of freedom of religion:
“I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Jew, or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”
If the entire show were an even spread of such thin notions, I could dismiss the show, or even enjoy it as as a guilty or problematic pleasure. But Sense8 has two great counter virtues.
The first is in the depiction of the San Francisco sensate, which is the best representation both of the city and of that particular community that I’ve ever seen on TV. Nomi, a trans woman, is first seen wandering through a very locally-informed San Francisco cityscape during Pride weekend. At every level, the limning of Nomi’s character and the study of San Francisco are intimate, layered, nuanced, and above all, specific. Nomi doesn’t fall off a bike somewhere in San Francisco, she falls off a motorcycle in the Castro during the Dykes on Bikes parade, which she rides in every year with her girlfriend, a gesture of extreme importance to her identity. She doesn’t meet-cute her girlfriend in a random park; she remembers a key moment early in their relationship where her girlfriend stands up for her against a hostile TERF during a picnic in Dolores Park.
It’s the specificity that rings true to this San Franciscan, and that signals to all viewers that this world is real, and the character is alive within it.
It’s a vision of how the entire show could have been, if the Wachowskis could have figured out in time how to bring this level of intimacy and specificity to their depiction of all the characters, and all the cities. Because Tom Tykwer, himself a Berliner, directs the Berlin sequences, you see a little bit of this familiarity in the locations chosen for that city and in the character of Wolfgang — his East German origins, his family’s Slavic name and orthodox religion, etc.
But none of the other sensates, including the idealistic Chicago cop, bear anything close to the level of intimate knowledge or specific detail that Nomi or Wolfgang have. In fact, pay attention and you’ll see how generalizing the locations and incidents are. For example: in Nairobi, the sensate’s bus is robbed in what the characters themselves call “a bad area,” i.e. they don’t refer to the district by its name.
But even this failure in the rest of Sense8’s world is countered somewhat by its second great virtue, which is that it commits totally to its clichés and rides them out to their conclusions. Thank the slow pacing for this. The entire 12-episode first season covers a story arc that would generally be covered in the first two episodes of any other show (the sensates are introduced, discover each other, start to learn the rules of their condition, meet their antagonist, and finally successfully pull off their first combined action). The very deliberation with which the story unfolds forces the writers to unpack details of each character’s life and situations that bring a kind of life and reality to the clichés they’re embedded in. Details are forced into the narrative — one by one in each character’s arc — and each character eventually becomes rooted in these details, even though they often come late in the season.
For example, Kala, the Indian sensate in Mumbai, is characterized over simply at first: she is to marry a man she doesn’t love, and she is a dedicated worshiper of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh. We don’t actually learn more large details about her, but in drilling down on these two things, we learn a great deal of anchoring detail: the marriage is not arranged, but a “love match;” with her boss’ son; whom she met at work; at a pharmaceutical company; where she works as a chemical engineer; because she has a master’s degree in chemistry. She worships Ganesh; not because she’s a benighted third world person but because she sees no conflict between science and spirituality; and because she had an experience of being lost as a child and then discovering a literal new perspective of the world through the eyes of a papier maché Ganesh parade float; as a consequence, she takes her sensate role in stride because she trusts that she is still seeing the world through Ganesh’s eyes.
All of the characters get drilled down into in this way, to varying degrees, and all start to take on life and verisimilitude. The main problem with forcing this kind of life into characters is that the audience cannot trust its, for lack of a better word, authenticity. To return to Kala: we see her more than once visiting the temple of Ganesh where she has out loud, private conversations with the god, a la Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I don’t know whether or not Hindus are taught to converse vernacularly with their gods in their temples, but the extreme Americanness of the depiction warns me that the Wachowskis probably don’t know either. My suspicion is that they transposed an American Christian moment into an Indian Hindu one, without really finding out if the translation held. Moments like this are sprinkled throughout.
The Wachowskis fail to examine characters in the characters’ own context. These are some of the basics of fictional world building and character development: you create the rules of the world, create the worldview, situate the character in this worldview, pick out notes of the worldview for the character to hold as a personal philosophy, motivate the character according to that personal philosophy, and have the character act throughout the story in accordance with these motivations. Missing out on any of these layers — especially the first, broadest layer of cultural context — leaves you with a character that may or may not be alive, but whose motivations, worldview, and context are a blank. And most of Sense8’s characters are laboring within blankness. Again, they gain a certain amount of rootedness, but not one that is trustworthy, because they are rooted in this same cultural absence.
Again, we need that fictional German word, to describe how I feel about what I can only call a failure of global imagination. The fact that the makers conceived of having a global imagination in the first place is, in itself, a triumph. The fact that they attempted to embody a global imagination in a television show is breathtaking. Given their approach, their failure to achieve that global imagination was inevitable.
Because the very act of conceiving a global imagination is itself a function of the specifically American imagination. I “assumed” earlier that we agreed with the Wachowskis’ philosophy of the universality of human experience; but do we? Universality is a deeply western humanist idea that attaches particularly well to the US’s brand of Darwinist individualism. We all have — or should have — the same opportunities, the same basis. What we make of this is a function of our individuality. Culture is just happenstance; what’s important is our actions, our choices, etc. It’s a familiar refrain, and much of American anti-racism and social justice is based upon the idea of the even — the universal — playing field as an ideal to aspire to.
But how universal is human experience, really? How empathetic can we be? We don’t really know how deep culture and environment go in the psyche. We don’t really know how different people can be. Our sciences — and especially our “soft” sciences, which are tasked with these questions — have barely scratched the surface of any answers, eternally stymied by their own deep-seated cultural biases, and the cultural bias of “science” itself. And the very idea of universalism is — o, irony! — too often a culturally imperialist idea imposed from outside upon cultures that share no such understanding of the world.
The characters discuss their choices with one another, but nowhere is there any cultural misunderstanding of each others’ choices. Yes, they can each feel what the others are feeling, think what the others are thinking. But does that free each of them from their cultural context? Wouldn’t, instead, each of them be having profound identity crises based on the deepest sort of culture clash anyone has ever felt?
“Universing” everything under an American idea — an American set of choices — is a contradiction in terms; one the Wachowskis underlined in Sense8 through their collaborative process. All five directors who worked on the show are white men, except Lana Wachowski,
who once lived as a white man and has access to that perspective. [Edit: I apologize for the ignorance of that comment and remove it herewith.] All are American except Tykwer, who has been working in Hollywood for years. All episodes in all locations were written by the Wachowskis and Straczynski — again, white American men plus Lana Wachowski. There seems to have been no thought of reaching out to, much less collaborating with, writers and directors from the cultures here represented.
The great irony of this show is that it failed to do what the show itself depicts: allow people from disparate cultures to work together, influence each other, clash with each other, and to live moments of each other’s lives.
In a discussion before I wrote this piece, I disagreed with a friend about the handling of language in the show. I really appreciated the choice of having all characters speak English without forcing them all to speak English in cheap versions of their “native” accents. And, given that this was an American TV show, I didn’t expect the makers to force American audiences to read subtitles. My friend, however, pointed out that it would have been… well, less hegemonic for everyone to be actually speaking their own languages.
Upon reflection, I have to agree that having the dialogue in non-English speaking countries translated would have offered the translators an opportunity for input about the content of the dialogue. And if the Wachowskis had hired writers from each culture to translate not merely the text but also the entire culture and idiom — up to and including changing plot points and points of view to better fit with the local culture of that character — this could have solved their whole problem.
Whether or not you believe in the universality of human experience — whether or not you believe in a single global imagination — the only way to attempt to depict a true global imagination would be to create — in the writers room and on the directors’ chairs — a facsimile of a sensate cluster. Just imagine it: eight equal auteurs, each in their own physical location and cultural context, striving together — and frequently pulling apart — to achieve a single, complex story on film. Even the failure of such an enterprise would have been far more ambitious, far more glorious, far more Ehrgeizversagensschoen, than the Sense8 we actually got.
And if it had succeeded?
There are four more seasons to go on this show — if the Wachowskis get their way. Let’s hope that in the future their globalism is more than just an aesthetic decision.
Bottom line: yes, watch it. Binge it. Its failure is far more interesting than the success of almost anything else happening at this moment. And it’s truly one of the most diverse shows on TV right now.