‘Sense8’ and the Failure of Global Imagination

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.

Yes, most of us are still white, but 3 outta 8 ain’t bad.

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.)

We contain multitudes.

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.

Even our tweets are clichéd.

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.

This is what bad guys look like in Mexico City.

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.”

Violence is the universal language.

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.

No, it’s not the new Mad Max movie, it’s San Francisco.

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.

One of these things is not like the others. Must be sci-fi.

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.

We have sex with each other inside our heads. Group sex.

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 world is a mirror that reflects yourself back to you… if you’re a white American dude.

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.

Am I a Korean woman dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a Korean woman?

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.

Psych! We shot the whole thing against a green screen!

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.

They just better not all be dead.

110 thoughts on “‘Sense8’ and the Failure of Global Imagination

  1. You’re kinder to this show than it deserves. It not only saw the rest of the world through white Western eyes only, any character not a white man was a stereotype at best and a fool at worst. Why would a Kenyan think putting JCVD on his bus would sell in KENYA?

    1. Well, it doesn’t sell, Batman’s bus on the other hand…. Maybe he could have felt a pull to JCVD because of Sun and kickboxing

    2. because it actually does…i lived in africa for 5 years and there are numerous busses with drawings and movie actors..not only whites like white actors..putting VAN dame on a VAN can make some people smile and go to that bus..

    3. Because it happens. It happens here in the Caribbean too with minibuses given names and characters and many of them are from American films, “The Godfather”, “Superman” etc.

      I think people underestimate just how much American culture has infiltrated the world.

    4. Actually, most Kenyan public transport buses have these and they are used to play music videos. Also Van Damme is a very credible role model for the guy to have ssame apllies to Bruce Lee and Arnorld Schwartzenegger movies. Action movies (the old ones) are still very popular in Kenya. They were very popular movies when I was growing up and still are. You don’t need dialogue, bad guy good guy fighting good guys wins, very useful for before you learn English (remember. I am much more concerned that we thought and still think some of these films are OK for six year old children.

  2. The failing to capture the nuance of the place is basically why I did write about superheroes from all over the world for my creative writing project in college. If I had unlimited resources and time, I would have. So it makes me kind of sad that Sense8 didn’t bother to take advantage of all the money they had to research and hire translators. And I think “Americans won’t read subtitles” is a lame excuse. LOST had subtitles and pretty good ratings, as I recall.

    1. As an Indian person currently working in US, I must say the characterization of Kala is spot on. She is educated, career oriented, religious, loves her family…..she is the epitome of the modern Indian women albeit more colorful and grandiose. She could be me, except I am lot less religious and she is way more beautiful. She has not been whitewashed/americanized/christianized. She is just Kala, Indian and a sensate.

      Bollywood is not cliche, it is intricately linked to our way of life. You will here it everywhere. Bollywood songs are to Indians what kpop is to Koreans but more. Are weddings are not demure Christian affairs of solemnity, they are multi-day celebrations and much more bombastic and there is singing and dancing involved where people perform bollywood numbers (google wedding sangeet). Maybe the groom and bride do not always participate but sometimes they do.

      There is no shame in celebrating cultural differences especially when the show does it so magnificently.

      1. I am also an Indian woman and I respectfully disagree.

        Firstly, 90% of the people on this show are hot af. But Kala is constantly – and awkwardly – singled out, even by her own dad who stops mid-speech in front of everyone to marvel at her beauty. It may have something to do with exotification of brown women.

        Secondly, and more importantly, I agree with the writer of this article in that Kala’s story is an american depiction of Bollywood. We do not talk out loud to gods in temples. If we thought the hot stranger in our bedroom was a hallucination, we would not actually believe that it is a demon sent by the gods. It was laughable, really. We do not take our religious myths that literally. Kala and her fiance announce the meaning of each walk around the fire – no one does that in weddings. Kala’s aunt announces the meaning of the mehendi which was literally taken from Wikipedia. Kala’s sister is amazed to find her “singing in English” – it’s not surprising at all given American media imperialism and 200 years of British colonialism. This was very much done to inform an American audience and make them go “Ooh, culture” rather than authentically depict the lives of Indians. Last but not the least, Kala (and her friends) matched the steps of her fiance’s dance crew in perfectly synced choreography during her sangeet even though the dance had been arranged as a surprise for her. So how did she know the steps? Yes, “the filmic clichés of each country are brought to bear on the production in each location.”

  3. The Korean scenes (at least so far in the 3 episodes I’ve watched) felt especially off to me, after years of watching K-dramas, learning Korean, having Korean friends, and having taken a trip to Korea. I felt like the scenes with Jin and Sun in LOST were much more culturally accurate, even if they did involve the stereotype of gangsters. (But hey, it’s a stereotype that Korean fictional media indulges in often as well.)

    I don’t feel like the cultural contexts were handled nearly as well in this as in LOST and HEROES. It feels like Heroes Lite, honestly–I’m 3 episodes in and I still don’t even know what’s at stake or why I’m watching.

    1. Ah yes, I’m sure having Korean friends and watching all those K-dramas makes you an expert on Korean culture. Good on you. Have you ever thought that you’ve created your own biased perspective of what Koreans should be like? Now that the TV show didn’t reach your expectations, that you are now turned off by it?

      1. To clarify: I am not saying I’m an expert. I’m saying it felt off and made me question. The same as a book set in Korea written by a white person made me ask my Korean friends re: details that felt off.

        I’m turned off by the show because the storytelling isn’t hooking me. It’s so slow paced that I don’t really care about any of the characters. *shrug* If you like it, great. Whatever.

    2. You will, it took to eps three for me to get the urge to watch them all at once. Once the four non blondes song and scene happened, it hit me in a place so deep. Remember, that the show has 8 main characters, it takes a bit to fully get them understood. Once that moment is reached however, I never looked back

  4. This is a great article. Thank you so much for this! I agree with you 100 %, but wish to add sth that you did not seem to be aware of: The Orthodox religion is BS. That has been written about as evidence of this having to be a typical “Eastern European gangster” type and I think that’s mostly correct. Eastern Germans are almost entirely atheists (communism y’all) and even the Christian minute minority are actually Lutheran in Eastern Germany (Luther being from there etc)! They could have explained this with the large amount of ethnic Germans who in the 18th and 19th century moved to Russia and were after the fall of the Iron Curtain asked to “kindly f*ck off” *back* (a bit silly after several centuries) to Germany and did that… Many of these are a bit stuck between Russia and Germany and some are even Orthodox. But they didn’t. Why didn’t they? For the same reason you point out: It was written by someone who didn’t know any of this.

    1. Interesting. I hadn’t read it that way. I had assumed that there was some backstory we might get later about Russians who immigrated to East Germany during the Soviet era, who then stayed and became gangsters. But it was probably something much more simplistic and I was overthinking it.

      1. Or perhaps they just didn’t think the audience needed it spelled out? That backstory is clicheed, yes, but the thing about clichees is that you can rely on the audience filling in the blanks for themselves. As someone living near Berlin (Eastern side), Wolfgang’s cultural background was completely obvious from the clues given (Orthodox funeral, Russian family name, oddly wealthy family members considering his father was so poor (= organised crime involvement), East German family background), and it did make sense. You managed to put it together just as well. There’s nothing special about being a Russian immigrant in Berlin, so I don’t know why you would need any more backstory for that. It’s something even Americans should be able to deduce from Cold War stories – it’s not like they made him a member if the very large Turkish community in Berlin which might have needed some explanation for foreigners. Would you expect an explanation if this was a German movie primarily done for a German audience but later translated for an international audience? You wanted cultural authenticity, well, this is part of it. If the US audience is too clueless to put something as basic as this together or use wikipedia, that’s not the writer’s fault. I prefer not to be treated like a child when watching adult shows.

    2. Given that Wolfgang has a Russian family name, I automatically assumed that his father was either a more recent immigrant (more likely) or that his family had been exiled after World War II (not after the Reunification – the whole thing was revenge for Germany’s invasion of Eastern Europe) for being “Russian Germans” who had settled there centuries ago (less likely that they’d kept their faith over 2 generations – though even people who really are atheist often stay in their birth Church because Church Tax is an easy way to give to charity and because they want a church venue for weddings. These people sometimes do still have religious funerals, especially for the elderly.) I can’t believe that they filmed in Germany, with a largely German crew, and didn’t notice that the Orthodox faith was rather unusual here. I mean, they would have needed to find a place to buy the clothes and all. So I took it as a deliberate signpost to clue the audience in that this family are Russian immigrants. Hey, it’s better than trying to do a Russian accent on top of a German one (or trying to find enough German actors capable of doing an authentic Russian accent for that matter).
      And yes, the “Eastern European Criminal” is a stereotype, but at least it’s a German stereotype. And he had to be a criminal for the type of action storyline they wanted to do. I don’t mean the over-the-top violence at the end, but simply just having a character who is familiar with hand guns and gets in dangerous situations. There simply isn’t the kind of violent crime rate as in the US, so normal citizens hardly ever get in serious fights, and only police are allowed to have weaponry other than hunting rifles.

      1. Nope. “Eastern European Criminal” is nowhere NEAR a “German” stereotype. Jeezus! It’s as much an American one!!! Or one for any other Western country (the UK, France etc). Cold War and all… ?! I thought you were an “expert”… 😉 And only him being ethnic German from Russia would explain the bizarro old name.

    3. there is such a thing as russian immigrants, and there might even be some of them still practicing the most popular religion in Russia. The guy with the russian surname having family from outside germany – who would have thought!!!

    4. …but Wolfgang Bogdanow is of Russian descent, whose family immigrated to Germany, and subsequently from East to West Berlin during his childhood? So yeah….Orthodox does make sense in this character’s context. Regardless, Wolfgang is definitely presented as being at most agnostic if not altogether atheistic in the show (see: Demons, “God doesn’t give a shit about us”) . The only time he is associated with it is at his grandfather’s funeral.

  5. PS: Not EXACTLY the word you’re looking for, but close: The German language offers you “verschlimmbessern”. To make something worse while having had the intention of improving it.

    1. Thanks, Leila, but I was actually looking to coin a word for the feeling you get at observing a glorious half-success/half-failure, which is not the same thing. If there’s a word for it, awesome!

  6. You have perfectly articulated my actual real life problem with the idea and crusade for international Americanization of all, and specifically a nagging issue I was having with the show epitomized in moments such as a Berlin criminal referencing TED talks.

    1. When did he reference a TED talk? I must have missed that, or you misread the reference.
      But, as much as it offends you, American cultural imperialism is a thing that exists in this world. And a German under the age of 30 would have grown up in a media culture completely saturated with English-language music, US TV shows and movies dubbed over or subtitled, and translated genre books originally published in the UK or US (I started reading english language books outside of school when I was 16, because the translation quality sucked and the paperback imports were cheaper than the German version in the late 90s). Wolfgang would have had at least 6 years of mandatory English classes, 9 if he didn’t quit school early (yes, he’s East German, but the Wall came down when he wasn’t even in school yet, he just moved school districts later), and given his love for rave parties (= international crowd) and women of colour (who would mostly be recent immigrants from the zone of American influence or the British Commonwealth), he’d naturally try to brush up on his English skills even as an adult. The easiest way to do that is the internet. I’m East German, and a few years older than Wolfgang, but I mostly keep to the international parts of the internet (more people to talk to than with just German, plus more indepth content about more varied topics), and I have watched a couple dozen TED talks.

      1. In episode 10, when Steiner dropped by the hospital and talked to Wolfgang about Felix (and other things): “I figured you needed a little…motivational… TED-type talk.”

        Why would anyone see it as a typical Americanization is beyond me, though. TED format has been adapted all across Europe (I don’t know about the whole world); there is no shortage of local instances of such. In this case it doesn’t particularly matter where the idea might’ve originated from, nor does the aforementioned bit of dialogue in any way indicate that Wolfgang’s cousin even had the slightest American reference in mind. There are TED(x) events regularly taking place in Berlin itself, I know that much.

      2. For me, it didn’t ring true. It sounded like dialogue written by an American. And I meant that it epitomized the lack of adoption of the dialogue to the different locations.
        I live outside the US, my friends and I have consumed tons of English language materials, as most people do, but still something like TED isn’t necessarily in their lexicon. If you say most Berliners know what it is then I guess I am wrong.

  7. Something else re: Capheus and Sun- they seemed the least fleshed out to me and I thought it was interesting that they were the ones without love interest.
    I thought the worst misstep was Capheus accent (from imdb): “Capheus’ accent isn’t actually a Kenyan accent but more of a West African accent. This is because Aml Ameen shot in Chicago before he went to Nairobi and the dialogue coach in Chicago confused a Nigerian accent for a Kenyan one.”
    That’s quite terrible, but exactly what you get when you hire actors who have never been to the country that they’re supposed to be from, have no ancestry from there and have never even been to the CONTINENT their character is supposed to be from. Aml Ameen is of Jamaican heritage and was born and bred in London.
    This on one hand is a “all Black people are the same” trope. I also really dislike it in general when underrepresented countries’/people then get portrayed by actors from somewhere completely else- why have a British actress portray Icelandic “Riley”? Why have an actor from Spain portray a Mexican man?! Especially glaring since all background, lesser roles were actually filled with Kenyan etc. actors. Everything but the main role, Capheus.

    1. The first half of this article comes across as a forced tirade against all Americanisims possible. Given the amount of repetitive themes, at times I had to wonder whether I wasn’t looking at some personal vendetta directed at a certain type of person the authors are supposed to represent, along with the type of culture they are seemingly submerged in. I also learned that someone has something against that song by 4 Non Blondes.

      Since almost everything these days can be branded as “clichés” or “stereotypes” (in a world where everyone is a critic, those words are most definitely used on regular basis), I’m usually more concerned with how any such tropes are employed. Which is something that I see is tackled down the line, even if my verdict differs from the one that was passed on. To me these characters came to life, felt authentic and believeable enough in their motivations that I genuinely became invested in their fates. I simply liked them.

      I don’t really know what kind of research Wachowskis and Straczynski have conducted, and what their true experiences are (neither, I assume, does the author). Last time I checked it was still a genre show with everything that entails, and not a documentary striving for factual realism. There is more than enough evidence of the series (and at times, even its characters) not taking itself with utter seriousness in certain scenes (Capheus’ embodiment of Van Damme, Lito’s timely rescue action or his unhinged adversary, etc.).

      As for the examples given: as someone born on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, yes, I could totally believe that young Wolfgang and Felix had a lot of admiration for something like Conan (same with Capheus and Van Damme, to an extent). I wouldn’t overestimate the potential effects of the so called local pop culture if it simply didn’t offer anything of the kind that the prevalent American influences had brought to the table (in terms of fantasy, superhero comic books, etc.). There was no real competition on that field.
      I’m not sure if I understand the main gripe regarding Kala’s prayers. Since we can’t hear a character’s thoughts on screen unless they are the narrator, the loud and direct “talking at someone” tends to come with the territory. The Bollywood dance number, on the other hand, was possibly the most forceful and fake addition across all storylines.

      I didn’t get the impression that the show is necessarily focused or obsessed with the universality of human experience (is the description given – having the same opportunities, the same basis – even one of ‘universality’?). The universality of the human nature, perhaps, regardless of context. In terms of feelings, needs, desires.
      In the end, I appreciated the ambition and scope of Sense8, even in it vastly imperfect attempt at diversity. If we are to call that global imagination, then I shall consider it an endearing success rather than a failure.

      1. I totally agree with this.

        Yes there were stereotypes. But they tried harder than a lot of other productions, which already means a lot to me. I.e. Sun is a kick boxer because she used to do competitive martial arts as a child, and kept at it as an adult because she has no other socially allowed outlet for her rage and frustration, NOT just because she’s an Asian stereotype and all Asians in genre shows just know martial arts. The Bollywood scene would feel appropriative and clicheed to me if it were done by Western actors, but those are actual Bollywood actors, and presumably most of the film crew was local too, so it feels more like the show creators gave them the opportunity to do a little showcase and advertisement for their own national filming style and dancing talent. (And given how ubiquious the dance numbers in Bollywood movies are, I can believe that Kala learned that particular one (it’s from a movie AFAIK) just for fun, the same way that Western girls learned the Macarena dance when it was a Fad.)
        And how many US productions bother to show non-Anglophone cultures at all? And if they do, how many film on location with actors who can actually pronounce the language? Yeah, they should have found an Icelandic and Nigerian actor (though do Iceland and Nigeria even have a film industry?), but as a German, I’m so very sick of US / UK / Canadian TV series mangling my language and using the wrong accents that I was really positively surprised that they got the Berlin scenes right at least.

        As for Conan: My only problem with this is that Wolf and Felix are a bit too young to be big fans of movies made in the early 80s, At 10 or 12 or however old they were. they would have been watching Xena / Hercules or Buffy or Dragon Ball. Or the first Matrix movie, actually. It’s true that there wasn’t much more interesting stuff to watch in the Eastern Bloc than clandestine imports from the West (and in East Berlin, you could get West German television – the broadcasting of which was the main point of West Berlin’s existence), but Wolfgang was a toddler when the Iron Curtain came down, so that point is moot. Perhaps Karl May movies or Italian Spaghetti Westerns might have been a little more fitting as German cultural mainstays about male friendship bonds, but those would be even older (1970s) and then the intended audience of this show wouldn’t have recognised the quotes.

      2. “The Bollywood dance number, on the other hand, was possibly the most forceful and fake addition across all storylines.”

        Why? Bollywood dancing is a thing. People the entire world set up intricate dance routines as surprises for their loved ones, you’ve probably seen at least one video of this on youtube or facebook.

        Look at the scene again. Kala’s husband has recreated a dance from a specific movie they both know. Kala is the only one who hasn’t rehearsed the dance because she is surprised, and she is also not dancing in sync with the dancers that her fiancee has hired, because she is winging it.

        If she had joined in perfect choreography without there being an explanation of her dance skills, then sure, but she isn’t. It’s just as how you or I could do the basics of the “Thriller” dance if we were in the mood 🙂

        That actually stood out to me as an extra believable moment because of the nuances in physical performance ^_^

      3. As an Indian, I completely agree that the bollywood dance number is not only the perfect homage to bollywood, but also 100% plausible IN REAL LIFE. That song and dance is from an extremely popular Shararuk Khan dance number and many (tons) of people actually learn the choreography of popular bollywood dance songs to PERFORM IN WEDDINGS!!!. I am just completely annoyed how people can comment on the “Indianism” of a scene without knowing jackshit about modern day India

      4. “do Iceland and Nigeria even have a film industry?”
        Wikipedia says
        “The cinema of Nigeria, often referred to as Nollywood, grew quickly in the 1990s and 2000s and became the second largest film industry in the world in number of annual film productions, placing it ahead of the United States and behind only India.[7][8] In 2013, it was rated as the third most valuable film industry in the world after generating a total revenue of NG₦1.72 trillion (US$10 billion) in 2013 alone, placing it behind India and the United States.[9]” , you ignorant fuck.

      5. Whoa! we must be friends. My girlfriend and I had literally just discussed everything you said before reading your comment. Even the bit about the 4 non-blondes song. To me, the author of the article seemed to be in a rage when writing, and I’d like to know what she would do to correct all the “failures” she points out.

      6. I tend to agree. It seems to me that the creators tried really hard to go beyond the usual all-white/whitewashing casting stereotypes, tried hard to bring in other cultures and points of view, and the author is saying, “Yeah, sorry; go all the way or don’t bother.” Perhaps I’m being overly-harsh, but that’s how this post comes across to me.

        Also, it’s 4 out of 4 non-whites. Unless someone decided recently that Mexicans counted as “white”, which certainly isn’t the perception most people in the U.S. have. Given this is a show being made primarily for an American audience, that it’s even 50% is noteworthy. Having a Muslim character would have been awesome, but you can’t have everything.

        And that’s where I disagree with the author. I think it’s wonderful they went as far as they did, and given they weren’t sure they were even going to *get* a second season, what they did was risky. Let me ask this: If the Wachowskis and JMS *had* done everything you suggest, and the show had been a major flop because all us cis-gendered, white, imperialist Americans couldn’t relate to it, would that have been better? Personally I don’t believe so. I’m looking at it more like Shogun in the 80s: It sure wasn’t perfect and had a lot of problems, but it was a huge step forward for American TV, using actual Japanese actors to play Japanese characters, filming in Japan, having the Japanese speak actual Japanese, etc. If this gets Americans to look beyond their own culture, that’s a huge win IMO.

    2. Without disagreeing with you in the slightest, I read in a couple of places on the internet that Lito, the character, is supposed to be Spanish. But I don’t know where that info came from or if it’s correct. Now I’m really curious.

      1. Really? I just assumed that they couldn’t find a Mexican actor with a “romantic hero” telenovela look who would have been willing to play a gay character and do graphic sex scenes – for pretty much the same reason that Lito can’t come out. Some cultures are so homophobic that just being willing to play gay would end your career, because it would start suspicions. Though I suppose they could have found a latino actor living in the US. Then again, in this case, it wasn’t just a case of good looks and talent – the actor needed to have believable chemistry with the actor playing Hernando, as well, which is much rarer than basic acting talent.
        I’m more upset that they didn’t get a gay actor to play a gay character than about his nationality, but oh well, as long as the actor is convincing…

      2. Actually in the show, there’s a moment one of the reporters asks Lito about his father teaching him flamenco (a Spanish dance) at which point I think he mentions a region of Spain his father is from. So I assumed Lito was Mexican but with Spanish parents or a father, or was born in Spain but moved to Mexico as a child. (I wish next season we have more info on his childhood, as happened with every other character)

      3. As far as I recall, he is supposed to be either Spanish or have Spanish parents, because at some point a reporter asks him about his father teaching him flamenco and he mentions the Spanish region where his father was born. I got the feeling he was born there and moved to Mexico early on or he was born in Mexico to at least one Spanish parent, but it would be nice to get his backstory next season, since we saw every other sensate as child but him.
        (I thought I had posted another reply here but it disappeared, so sorry for the double post if it’s the case 🙂

      4. I can’t find a way to reply to Vivi, so this is the best way I can.

        First of all, the Bollywood dance number is really painful. Not because it happens, as many Indians love that style of dancing and its use in Bollywood films, making the fiancee deciding to do it totally plausible. No, it is the fact that Kala joins in the dance with perfect choreography and backup dancers when the dance number was a complete surprise to her. That scene was a director or writer disregarding any sense of the scene’s internal logic so that they could really lean into making a great spectacle out of a stereotypical understanding of the “magical exoticism” of Indians.

        Second of all, Nigeria actually has one of the biggest film industries in the world. The Nigerian film industry, frequently known as Nollywood, produced more films than even Bollywood for a few years. Do not dismiss the culture industries of other countries unless you know anything about them. But that is almost beside the point, because Capheus is Kenyan.

        I actually managed to enjoy the show, but I think it is wrong to dismiss concerns about how it handles representation, stereotypes and American cultural imperialism. The writer of the article is right. The show gets things right, but it also gets a whole lot of things wrong.

        And as an aside, I did not mind the idea of the characters largely speaking English. Indians are generally perfectly fluent in English and often use it interchangeably with their own indigenous languages, Germans learn English throughout school and through pop culture, and it’s not surprising that a Korean businesswomen would be perfectly proficient in English, and Kenya was a British colony. But having Wolfgang speak to other Germans in English, Sun speak to other Koreans in English, and Kala and Capheus speak exclusively English to other Indians and Kenyans was just unbelievable. It grated on me and worked hard at dispelling my suspension of disbelief, and it also enlarged my suspicions around the issue of American cultural hegemony and insensitivity to cultural contexts in the production of the show.

      5. It seems that Aesan beat me to the punch in his/her criticism of the Bollywood scene. 😛

      6. Vivi, well…you did “assume”, he is Spanish, it is evident in the dialogue, but his boyfriend and female friend are Mexican. They are also all part of the telenovela industry in Mexico. I love these long articles about cliches of other countries where everyone pats themselves in the back about how they would have made a better movie if they only had the talent and the money. It usually goes something like ” white people can’t do anything right “. This is of course because POC are so much better at understanding other cultures.. Right? Ultimately, we ALL have a limited perspective and frankly the depiction of Americans is also a cliche in the movie. The movie does a relatively good job of being inclusive of all cultures and respectful of them without being 8 documentaries about 8 different cultures. The most important thing about the movie, as it has always been with these directors, is the concept.

      7. It’s literally in the show. He says in an interview in episode 1 his father was a dance instructor from Bilbao.

    3. This may seem nitpicky to the larger point you’re making, but I just wanted to point out that it’s mentioned in the show that Lito (the character) is a transplant from Spain to Mexico, so at least they got that right.

  8. My last comment, I promise: I just watched a subtitled interview with Max Riemelt (who plays “Wolfgang”) about his role. He said that he was put off by the name – no young person is called Wolfgang in Germany anymore, it’s an extremely antiquated name that your grandpa would have. He said that it seems as if that was just the stereotype that “they” have (“they” seems to refer to non-Germans here): “Germans for them are just called Wolfgang”. He said that he was however very much into the Wachowskis doing this and that notwithstanding the silly name they were what attracted him to the project.

    1. Yes, the name is antiquated for someone under 30. However, My brother (45 now) had a friend in university who was called Waldemar (“Waldie” to be less embarrassing – which a name you’d normally call a dog), and I (32) had a class mate named Benedikt. Both are just as old-timey. These things happen, and names come back in cycles. The show did admit that the name was unusual in the flashback to when Felix and Wolf first met.

      I did have a few minor problems with the scenes set in Germany. The Russian orthodox funeral is in the realm of possibility, but almost all East Germans are either atheist or nominally Protestant but not actually religious. Still, if his father was a recent immigrant, it’s possible. I’m kind of suspicious about a water tub birth in 1988 East Berlin, but his mother also had a tattoo, which would mean that she was very counter-culture and opposed to state institutions, and might avoid hospitals. Nude bathing in indoor pools is normally not allowed in Berlin (it’s generally just a beach thing), but some googling tells me that particular pool has nude bathing hours on weekend evenings and it used to be a cruising spot. And while I certainly can believe that a career criminal with ties to the Russian mob would have no problems getting hand guns despite Germany’s very serious restrictions, that bazooka did stretch my suspension of disbelief. As did the fact that Wolf didn’t have a string of police cars following him after a shoot-out in a fairly central part of the city. Gun shots aren’t so everyday here that people wouldn’t call the cops. And while I personally don’t know any mobsters, I find it a little hard to believe that particularly the Russians wouldn’t find any questions about blowjobs insulting. (Though, on the other hand, Berlin does have several big LGTB Pride festivals every year and has had a very openly gay mayor for most of the last 15 years. It’s basically the San Fransciso of Central Europe. So it’s possible that Berlin thugs would be more cool about it than elsewhere.) And honestly, I appreciate the effort at showing Berlin as a multicultural city, but most of the PoC immigrants here are serious Muslims. I managed to get through several years of university without ever meeting more than 2 Chinese PhD. students (There were other immigrants in my courses, but those were all Eastern European or Russian). Wolfgang managing to meet and bed / ogle / dance with so many happily naked or at least unveiled Black or Near-Eastern-looking women makes it seem like he’s specifically (and exclusively) targeting them, like it’s some kind of fetish.

      However, the general FEEL of the scenes set in Berlin is so authentic that I actually thought “Hey, this looks like home” before they even showed any street signs. (I didn’t know there was going to be a German character in advance and the Orthodox funeral made me think they were in Greece or Russia, at first.) And it’s not that I recognised the actors (I don’t watch much German TV), though I do appreciate that they bothered to hire actual German actors instead of asking Americans to fake an Austrian accent and to mangle their way through some gratuitous German phrases (The German on US / UK / Canadian TV is ALWAYS awful, except for the rare case when they hire a German expat for the role. I don’t know how it’s so difficult to find a voice trainer or at least proof reader for the script for such a common language. The actor playing Wolfgang, however, even has the correct Berlin accent in his few German lines. The effort of localising the production really is appreciated.) I think it was actually the quality of the sunlight and the particular layer of grime and grafitti that I recognised. But in the end, I ended up recognising most of the places they filmed his scenes. Which feels so weird, if you’re used to seeing US locations on TV all the time. (Germany produces some TV dramas, but it’s mostly soaps, cop shows and the occasional TV movie about romantic drama, none of which interests me. Genres like scifi or urban fantasy cost too much to produce for a small audience, so German TV channels just dub US productions a lot.)

      1. @Vivi

        Since I couldn’t directly reply to your post above, for whatever reason.

        That’s how I felt about it too. Some stereotypes might’ve very well been inescapable from for the kind of genre show the creators wanted to produce. Be it a martial artist, a cop, or a hacker – the sensates’ struggle for survival would be much tricker (if not downright impossible) without a certain sets of skills available to them. So instead, I just appreciate the fact that the basic mold was considerably enriched in less obvious ways.

        Sun is a good example. An Asian dude (appropriately athletic) would’ve been a more typical choice. Her small posture and lithe frame make her look inconspicuous enough, yet I found her motivations and background believeable. Her mentor also seemed like an actual person.
        I still find the inclusion of that Bollywood number to be the most ludicrous plot element in the show, as entertaining as it might’ve been to watch. I could accept that Kala might’ve known the moves (and Rajan did mention the movie it came from), but the amount of perfect synchronization going on there between the dancers just wasn’t natural in the slightest. Kala and her troupe supposedly did not see it coming and couldn’t have prepared. You’d think there would be people not getting the moves so right, synchronized in perfect unison with everyone else.

        I’m not sure exactly how young Wolfgang and Felix were supposed to be in the flashbacks, but I didn’t find the inclusion of Conan to be far-fetched. I was roughly their age in the 90s, and had a lot of appreciation for those films made in the previous decade (the good, old times of VHS casettes). And I also did love those Winnetou movies and Karl May’s books. Dragon Ball and the likes of Xena/Hercules came closer to the turn of the century for us (in Poland), when non-public TV and later computers became popular. One other point about Conan: Arnold Schwarzenegger was kind of big back then, and for the German boys there might’ve been the added connection of shared language and originating from a similar cultural circle. Perhaps that inclusion wasn’t entirely accidental/random in the show.

        I’m not convinced by anyone stating that the producers should’ve hired actors of given nationality. It’s in the job description that an actor be able to portray various personas, and the casting process needs to be concerned with picking the best people for the role as envisioned. We don’t really know what the auditioning process looked like – perhaps Tuppence Middleton and Aml Ameen simply didn’t have any viable competitors, of the aforementioned nationalities or otherwise. And they both did an excellent job from my perspective.

      2. “I just assumed that they couldn’t find a Mexican actor with a “romantic hero” telenovela look who would have been willing to play a gay character and do graphic sex scenes – for pretty much the same reason that Lito can’t come out. Some cultures are so homophobic that just being willing to play gay would end your career, because it would start suspicions. ” Mexicans are not any more homophobic than Americans. If the concern is that a straight Mexican actor would lose their career should they act gay on screen, gay Mexican actors exist. Hollywood casting directors should just admit that they have specific people in mind that want to cast for roles and quit saying that they couldn’t find actors of said ethnicity.

  9. Reblogged this on Quite Nefarious and commented:
    Although I’m loving the praise for this wonderful show, I was hoping there was an article that would deconstruct the mechanics of the production in an insightful and thoughtful way. #goNOC

  10. Overall I found this series worth watching (after about mid-third episode) but the stereotypes were often difficult to get past including the SF characters that the author thought were a true reflection of the city. Of course the only characters from SF are a transgender “hacktavist”, a free-spirited lesbian, and an aging hippy, all a part of SF culture but stereotypes nonetheless.

  11. Very thorough review, but nothing about the cringeworthy 1990s after school special dialog? That and the questionable editing and slow pacing are why I won’t be back for Season 2.

    1. Oh, I have SOOOOOO much other stuff to say about this show that I will still be watching season 2 of, but after putting down 3000 words (for a blog post!) I figured I’d spare you all.

      1. Please do more research on subjects that you plan on griping about a lack of (maybe, how would you know since you didn’t research it) researching by the show creators.
        There is absolutely one thing that this blog post did for me. It made me realize just how really happy I am that I am the type of person that considers victories more important than perceived failures.

  12. I’m about as irritated by your lack of research (of which you basically outed yourself in your article, by the way) as you are with the Sens8 writer’s lack of research. While I agree with aspects of your article, the realities of film making are just as problematic as the issues you point out here. Africa doesn’t have much of a film industry so finding actors from certain regions to play major speaking roles would prove difficult and costly, though not impossible, as Biko Nyongesa and Peter King are both from Kenya. Finding a Mexican telenovela actor willing to play a nonsteriotypical/comedic relief gay role (i.e. hairdresser/female lead’s confidant) WITHOUT any sex scenes would be quite a feat, and that’s kind of one of the many underlying social commentaries going on in Lito’s storyline. Bollywood IS Indian popculture and there is no doubt that certain dances made popular by that particular film industry could be seen, though, not necessarily common place. Praying aloud is common in the Hindu religion. Interestingly enough, where as many Muslims will recite their prayers quite loud, many Hindu people believe as long as one’s prayers can be heard with one’s own ears, their god will have no problem hearing them as well. Also, how else would the viewer know what Kala was praying for? And, as problematic as it is in and of itself, American popculture permeates throughout many of these cultures. For example, Western music is almost a guarntee in a traditional Hindu wedding (particularly the reception) which by the way, was depicted quite accurately in Sens8. The only potential inaccuracy I picked out, was the scene where they’re planning the ceremony, in which it was suggested could take up to 6 hours; traditional Hindu wedding ceremonies can last up to 3 days. While I appreciate what you’re going for in this article, and the importance of these conversations, it feels, at points, like you’re swallowing the cherry without removing the pit. How can a Kenyan character with AIDS and without affordable access to medication be considered a stereotype? This is a very real problem and the blackmarket trade/poor quality of medication is just as big of a problem as it is underappreciated/underdiscussed from a western lense. I, for one, was very happy to see that part of Capheus’ story line, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out alongside Kala’s role in the pharmaceutical industry.

    1. Wow, Michael, could you be more condescending? You are chiding the author for not doing their research while also NOT doing your research. Re-read your comment on how Hindus pray and see your contradiction.

      There are many Kenyan actors both in Hollywood and in Kenya. I am sure there are agents who can find them / Wikipedia can do the trick as can Google. The fact that they got the accent wrong because the dialogue coach mixed up Kenya for Nigeria shows a disinterest in developing a fully fleshed character.

      People like Capheus exist. But, the framing of the narrative is very stereotypical.

    2. How can a Kenyan character with AIDS and without affordable access to medication be considered a stereotype? Consider my next few points

      1: ARV medication has been free in Kenya since 2006. Given at government hospitals.
      The reason the black market trade in ARVs exists is because of stigma. Poeple don’t want to go to the government hospital and be outed as HIV+. In fact many people go to hospitals in other counties and provinces just to maintain anonymity, wealthier clients go to private hospitals. So if Capheus’ mum is using black market drugs then it would follow that the people around her wouldn’t know she was HIV+, if she isn’t (using black market ARVs) then the real financial cost would go into keeping that secret; say she goes to a hospital somewhere in Isiolo where she needs to stay at a motel and to travel etc. That would make sense.

      2. HIV positive women especially those form the slums were the most vocal in lobbying the government for this. Yet they depict Capheus’ mother as a hothouse flower purely dependent on him.

      3. If he is helping his mother then let him but as it is in the film he is carrying her. What does she do? who is she? seem like she is just there when he wakes up to feed him then there in the evening to take her medicine.How can a woman who defied her family and relocated with her son turn out to be such a hot-house flower? Give her some Agency.

      4. The thugs wielding machetes are unrealistic, there is a reason it is called “Nairoberry” armed robbery. The reason in all ethnic cleansing plots you see machetes is to remind you these are everyday people, farmers and shopkeepers etc not thugs. They did not keep arms, That is the tragedy of ethnic cleansing it is neighbour killing neighbour when two week ago they were farming together. Those machetes we all seem to have are for weeding not acquired as weaponry. so how odd is it when thugs in Nairobi CBD have machetes,do they go to the outskirts to farm part time? I know it is CBD because that gun fight happen at that Ngara intersection that connects to nation centre on Tom Mboya street. Why do they have machetes there? why oh why?

      5. Do we really think all poor people talk about when they meet is their poverty? All conversations between Capheus and his friends are about their poverty. The most realistic one that happens is when the buddy’s wife doesn’t want him at home. I could see that happening. but the idea that two guys who are buddies will meet everyday for drinks to talk about their poverty is mad. They talk about their day, their current hustle, women, politics etc but they do not sit around discussing their poverty. What happens here is that the writers are so overwhelmed by the idea of poverty that they imagine it must infuse every moment of the lives of poor people. They cannot enjoy a drink in a bar for their poverty? Those guys are drinking a canned six pack of Tusker as they talk poverty (legit?) does that seem legit to you.

      6. Also Capheus owns that bus which would making his annual NET income 30,000 DOLLARS a year. Wrap your mind around that. The idea of an unmarried, childless young man who owns a bus living in Kibera HIV+ mother or not is unrealistic. Most of the bus owners who live there are supporting up to six dependents and putting siblings through college. Does Capheus have a drug habit we don’t yet know about? Where is all that money going? Is he paying a mortgage in Athi River? What is really going on there?

      7. The cursing. Kenyans are on the daily foul mouthed but do we use American curse words. too many motherfuckers going on in that script. Imagine if they replaced one of those “motherfuckers” with “kumamako”? Completely changes the dynamic of that scene. In informal settings Kenyans speak a mix of English and all our other languages that would make our curse words totally fit in because that is what we do on the regular. Break of mid an English sentence to curse you out in Swahili and something else. In a Kenyan context “Motherfucker” and “kumamako” are not equivalent insults. “shenzi type” “fala” where are all these words that would have completely changed the scene?

      1. Probably the best comment in this entire thread so far. Thanks so much for going into such depth and pointing out exactly how the Kenyan scenes were not authentic and blandly exoticised without any attention paid to detail or plausibility. The broad stereotypes grated too much for me, and you make clear entirely how.

  13. Although I agree that Sense8 certainly has its problems, having attended a wedding in India, what might be considered a Bollywood dance number is actually something I saw happen during what’s called a sangeet. Basically, a night or two before the wedding, the bridal party I saw carried out a 20- to 30-minute skit complete with several choreographed dance numbers set to music. As I watched Sense8 with my girlfriend (who I accompanied to that wedding in India), we both commented that anyone else who hadn’t attended a wedding in India would probably think that scene was a horrible cliche. The wedding ceremony we attended in Chennai also lasted several hours, although audience members were allowed to mill around, talk and eat; maybe Sense8 didn’t put that part in because they didn’t think people would understand, or maybe Mumbai weddings are different.

    1. The problem isn’t the choreographed bollywood number–those are common enough in North and West Indian sangeet ceremonies before the wedding rituals (though not in East Indian ones). And this is Mumbai, the heart of Bollywood so the film music is particularly apt.

      The problem was that Kala was supposedly surprised with the dance number, yet when she joins in protestingly, she immediately starts dancing perfectly in sync with the other dancers, as if she had rehearsed intensively before. All or even most Indians DON’T have automatic Bollywood choreography action going on, sorry. It’s not genetic or anything.

  14. I don’t agree with everything on this post but I do appreciate all of the points made, this is overall a pretty interesting take on the show. The one thing I wanted to comment on is the use of English: while I think the show would have been richer if the original languages were used, and while my first thought was also “damn Americans and their distaste for subtitiles”, I later realized that most countries actually dub every tv show/movie on a foreign language. I can’t speak for Asia or Africa, but if you go to most countries in Europe you’ll have a hard time finding a movie that isn’t dubbed in theaters. My own country, Brazil, is one of the few places I know where subtitles are still a thing, and even so it’s mostly only on cable and theaters – and even that is slowly changing and dubbed material is turning into the norm.

    So while the use of English is an American choice – because it’s an American production and Esperanto never really took off so we’d have an actual “global” language – the decision to have all the dialogue in one language makes more sense than I originally thought. It’s purely for our benefit as viewers, and not only for English-speaking viewers but to facilitate dubbing to other languages. Also, I appreciate that they took the time to explain it inside the show, that’s more than a lot of other American shows/movies attempt to do.

  15. Late to reply, since I only read this after finishing the show, and I think most of the arguments I’d make have already been mentioned by others in these comments, but…

    I thought this was a good read–I found a lot of the arguments either fair, or at least worth thinking about–although the fact Claire Light says she half thinks the show works doesn’t really come off (1/4 works? 😛 )

    Just a few things I haven’t seen mentioned. I think it’s disingenuous to let J. Michael Straczynski off the hook for anything you dislike right from the start. In every interview with him and the Wachowskis they talk about how the idea for the show originated–and it originated with a late night hang out with all three. He was there from the start. And, at least from watching Babylon 5, you can see MANY of his favourite themes used in this show (AVClub in their reviews in fact makes a point of trying to guess which philosophical silly comments in each episode stem from him or the Wachowskis.)

    I know this isn’t the point of the article–but I do think where the show is groundbreaking is the fact that it’s a high profile genre show with such strong GLBT content. I really can’t think of any American genre movie or show with the equivalent–and this is something the Wachowskis would never have been allowed to do, to the same extent, with a mainstream movie–so I appreciate Netflix for that.

    I had big reservations with the show–but ultimately it really won me over despite, and even sometimes endearingly because of its misfires. One thing about the cliche view of non American cultures. Fair enough–but I give the creators some benefit of the doubt. This show plays with genre tropes. The Indian storyline seemed to me to be created as a typical Bollywood movie (without the songs–except that one time.) The Mexican storyline felt like a fairly typical comic telenovela (well except with the gay stuff.) Boston cop procedural, etc. Some of these genre pastiches are done better than others, but it seems to really think the creators are idiots to assume that they don’t know they are riffing on established cliches.

    Granted, thinking of the show as a series of genre pastiches does allow me to forgive some of the shows’ elements. Luto says a lot of over the top things (even when not quoting from his film work) but in the context of a telenovela those make sense, etc.

    I also appreciated that the same three writers handled every episode–yes, bringing in more writers might make the other voices sound more authentic, that’s a fair point. But really creatively I appreciate shows written by smaller writing teams carrying out their vision throughout (John Logan writing every Penny Dreadful, a ot of UK examples, etc.)

    To me the show is not about the universality of humankind. I felt the point being made was more about the importance not of thinking “we’re all the same,” but rather of *empathy* And for me, they managed to–sometimes damn awkwardly–really convey this by the end.

  16. The sprawling blather of this article could be summarized as follows: the creators have a cultural perspective which is insufficiently vitiated from those portions the program which take place in foreign countries. Seriously? And you spent three thousand words on this vacuous whinging? Actually yes, this is absolutely correct, in the same way that Shakespeare really blew it in his superficial portrayals of Italians, French, Danish, by failing to Hoover out his own (and his audience’s I might add not insignificantly) cultural underpinnings. Africa wasn’t African enough, and India, well they really over-India’ed India, says your querulous author, fresh from her semester abroad where she sampled many different dishes wrapped in banana leaves and learned six words of Hindi. Give me an effin’ break. That’s what you babble on and on about for twelve down-scrolls of carping and mewling? Thank goodness for the numerous commenters who basically said, “well I’m from there, and that’s pretty much how it is.” I’ve got a quibble or two with this show, such as it could ramp up the sci-fi at the “expense” of protracted character development, but that’s a personal preference. This show takes place on four continents, plus Iceland. There is no way viewers could be asked to internalize indigenous and parochial customs of Africa, India, Iceland, England, Germany, etc., all while bringing characters along and –by the way– telling a science fiction story. Perhaps the author simply doesn’t understand what genre she is reviewing, or the constraints on authors and audiences; this isn’t a Michener book, it’s ten 40 minute episodes. But the more serious indictment is that the author’s criticism, and the title and thesis of this absurd article she wrote, demonstrate a total lack of understanding that artists don’t hurl away their own social heritage when generating creative output. Going overboard in the manner suggested by the author, whose creative output I suspect is limited to petulant diatribes attacking the work of those who actually create, would not enrich Sense8, but instead would imbue it with an overreaching phoniness and herky-jerky delivery that would have ruined the piece.

  17. I hardly comment on anything I read online, but there’s something quite great about this article. It’s no only the thesis of the author, but the comments.

    I cannot stress enough, as others have already said, that the idea behind Claire’s essay is genuinely good, however there are some arguments that I felt (and that I’m glad others have pointed out) were the same that she complained about in the first place.

    As I watched ‘Sense 8, a friend of mine and my girlfriend have told me that there were a lot of cliches in the characters and situations. And it’s true, but that does not make the characters less real. As far as I can tell, as a mexican, I find Lito and his story arc as something very close. Someone has already said in the comments that he recognized the scenes in Berlin, that they “feel like home”. I cannot say that every mexican could recognize where Lito is, nor that they share his tastes (after all, he is an actor of a telenovela, I do not know anyone who could afford his lifestyle), but there is a certain kind of hapinness whenever Lito’s on screen because I see Mexico’s skyline, or its downtown, or mexican cars, or even mexican actors (even though Lito is not one himself). This cannot be overstated: it is great to see Mexico in a series this big as something that may not be completely accurate, but at least is not false. I believe that there are a lot of mexican productions that have failed so much more in creating Mexico as a diegetic space than ‘Sense 8’. Telenovelas themselves tend to be completely unrealistic in their takes -most of them do not pay attention to scenario unless they are doing propaganda for a touristic place.*

    *(I have to add this footnote. I loved the scenes in mexico’s downtown, I love whenever they show a panoramic of the city, whenever there’s a shot of Reforma with little people riding ecobicis or walking to their works, but of those scenes I really enjoyed the Lito’s action scene when he channels Will, the cop. That scene was shot in a pretty obscure cultural center in Plaza Santo Domingo -and I say pretty osbsure in a no lightly manner: I work as an editor of a literary magazine based of the government and I usually know those things).

    Of course that I do not think that ‘Sense 8’ is perfect in this matter. I would love to the characters to be more complex characters than type.

    And yeas, I do think it is weird for the characters to not speak in their native language when they are not interacting with each other. I have read subtitles all of my life and most of the people I know, unless they are children, tend to prefer movies and tv series in their native language. Maybe that’s a cliche in itself for all the american remakes and their poor knowledge on foreing culture, but a little reading (subtitles!!) never killed nobody.

    And, finally, as Claire said, it would have been interesting to have some international creative talent in the mix, be it as writers, translators or directors, I do believe it would have improved a lot those aspects of the characters that felt quite over the top.

  18. Just a quick question from me. Your caption under the first photo says “three out of eight isn’t bad” but I count four people of color and four white people, so I’m confused by this.

    1. Ethnicity and Nationality two completely different things. Lito may live in Mexico but his Parents are Spaniard. —This makes him White.

  19. As a South American currently living in Berlin, Wolfgang’s scenes actually looked hilariously impossible. The crime rate in Germany is really, really low – even in Berlin, a dangerous city for German standards. That huge ass gun fight right (including a rocket launcher!) in front of the Berlin Wall, the biggest tourist destination in the city? Who are you kidding? The worst thing I’ve ever seen in Germany was a drunk guy breaking a bottle on another drunk guy’s head. Before I had time to react to what I’d seen the aggressor was already being handcuffed by police who were nearby.

    Neonazi violence against PoC? Yes, it happens. Someone sneakily stealing your wallet or phone in the subway? Yup. Now, rocket launchers and drive-by shootings? No way.

    All this to say that, if Sense8 did present distorted versions of reality in other countries, Germany wasn’t an exception. Tykwer might be German, but he sure has fully absorbed the American way to do TV.

  20. This blog post makes a good point that only a few character’s story lines(and really only Nomi’s and Lito’s) are fully fleshed out. However, it’s the observation of the Wachowski’s lack of understanding or knowledge of the world coming from a person who doesn’t seem to know either(I have a feeling the Wachowski’s spent a lot of time trying to understand other cultures and portray the stereotypes that are actually true but they over simplified them in the show). I am hoping that we get to know and understand other characters as well as we do Nomi. We feel for her, we feel like we know her, we can root for her. The other characters need to feel real and as this blog correctly states, Nairobi, Korea, and India feel too unexplored and generic when compared to San Francisco. Let’s hope the second season doesn’t sacrifice the character’s origins in lieu of the central sci-fi story.

  21. Thanks for this lively analysis! Some thoughts: “Sense8” started as three way conversation about what might be possible, and was thus conceived of, written, pitched, and fleshed out entirely evenly between the Wachowskis and Straczynski. All have stated that the scripts were systematically passed around equally amongst the three for rewrites and finishing. JMS was not a part of direction, but as EP in charge of editing/post-production, he has stated that he “saw every frame.” I think perhaps you will understand better what JMS brings to this project if you saw a complete list of all of his work (if that’s possible). JMS is vastly prolific by any definition, and is not bounded by an emphasis on comics, or short arc TV shows. He wrote a BAFTA nominated screenplay for Changeling directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. He has also co-written the script for movies such as World Wide Z, Thor, and Underworld: Awakening. JMS also wrote almost every single episode (and movies) of the acclaimed five year arc TV show Babylon 5, for which he is generally acknowledged as having established the first TV show conceived of from the beginning as having a five-year story arc. According to Deadline (http://deadline.com/2015/01/j-michael-straczynski-red-mars-series-spike-1201354875/), JMS “… has written more than 300 produced episodes of television and nearly 500 comics for Marvel, DC and others.” Currently he is writing the script for the revival of Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery,” and the “Red Mars” TV series produced by HBO’s Game Of Thrones co-executive producer Vince Gerardis and based on the Hugo and Nebula award winning books by Kim Stanley Robinson. JMS has stated that he has been preparing the script for season two of Sense8 in anticipation of a renewal from Netflix. Now that he has written out much of the second season of Sense8, he has no doubt returned to the established collaborative method of trading episodes back and forth with the Wachowskis for filling out and editing of the next 12 episodes of.this series, where the narrative style is adventurous, challenging and very promising in terms of more that will be revealed in Season 2.

  22. Hi, your comment that “even our tweets are cliched” refers to the tweet by crew member Alessandro Bertolazzi of the welcome gifts which customarily await the cast when they arrive on location. In this case, the Sense8 welcome gifts were assembled by the Bollywood production company “Take One Productions.” No doubt the Mumbai residents working for this company chose welcome gifts that they felt would represent the rich cultural traditions of Mumbai and Maharashtra. The text which was removed from this photo describes this welcome gift function and gratitude to Take One, which a quick fact check would be identified easily as a Mumbai company. I am hopeful someone else removed this information from the photo you are criticizing as cliched, and that is why it remained an uncredited photo from the unofficial website, which I curate and maintain. http://www.sense8linked.com/Locations/Mumbai/i-Tx7stsZ/A

  23. As a Mexican, I think Lito wasn’t that farfetched. Lots of “white” people here are Mexican but of Spanish descent. It’s not unbelievable, it happens a lot. A lot of telenovela protagonists aren’t Mexican. Just ask William Levy. Also, there aren’t many publicly gay actors in Mexico’s telenovela industry, and most of them cause controversy when they come out. I think it’s hard to relate to another culture because we know so little about the world. That’s no easy task, much less while telling a story. You could write books just about life in Mexico, as you could do for any other country. I think this is a nice first attempt. Not too disrespectful, i read the production managed to use a lot of locals for every scene and filmed on locations.

  24. Overall, I find this an interesting and convincing critique, but must disagree with you on one small point, Claire. You mention that, because Lana Wachowski once lived as a white male, she has access to this perspective. In suggesting this, I think you demonstrate patterns of stereotyped thinking similar to those which you accuse the Wachowskis of falling into. If they are imposing American assumptions onto non-American cultures, you are similarly imposing cisgender assumptions on trans lives. (I’m assuming that you are not, yourself, trans. If you are, we could have another, quite interesting conversation.) Most trans women I know–and I am a trans woman myself–will tell you they have no clue what a male perspective is or could be. We may have been socialized as male, and may have tried to live as boys/men, but we were not and are not male. Rather, we are trans women who went through a socialization that was wrong for who we are. This gives us access to a perspective of what it’s like to be a woman who is assumed to be male by society, and who therefore attempts to live as male, but it is does not give us access to a male perspective.

    I think acknowledging this would actually strengthen the argument you are making. Part of the reason why Nomi’s story line is so convincing is because one of the people involved in making the show is, herself, a trans woman and therefore brings a trans woman’s perspective. If having someone who lives within trans culture herself helps make that story line work so well, surely this would be further evidence in favour of the position that the Kenyan story line needed to have people who live within Kenyan culture involved, the Korean story line Korean people, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for a great read overall.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I apologize for the ignorant comment in the article. I made it without thinking very much about what I was saying, and that was stupid of me.

      I actually re-thought that sentence later, in conversation with a friend, and realized that I was wrong and didn’t know what perspective Lana Wachowski would have. I left the sentence as is because I wasn’t sure if I should remove it or not — it seemed dishonest and counter to accepted blog practice. But Racialicious later cross-posted this article and I removed that sentence from their article. I’m just coming back to this months later and I think — even though it’s late in the game — I should change the phrasing to eliminate the stupidity.

      1. Thanks for this response. I really appreciate it. To be honest, the error you made is an easy enough one to fall into for reasons that I don’t need to explain, I’m sure. And, obviously, I would be in favour of changing the phrasing, but it’s your blog and you should do what seems appropriate to you. Thanks for so graciously accepting the criticism.

      2. Mary Ann, I did strikethrough the phrase, as you can see above. I don’t have direct access to this blog, so it took a minute. 🙂 Thank you again for prompting me to do what I should have done earlier.

  25. I agree that while the show has many limitations and failures, I do love what it is striving for and think it’s wonderfully ambitious. I did love the show, even if it is the world through the eyes of american film makers. Yes it would be wonderful if more diverse filmmakers were used.

    One other limitation to the show you don’t mention is class. There is very little differentiation of class – yes the Kenyan character is poor but he is handsome, well groomed and owns a bus, thus a small business No one is really debilitated by poverty and in fact most are quite well off, able to travel quite easily. Imagine if even one of the sensates had been one of the black gang members in Chicago or lived in a slum in Mumbai? Of course when you’re struggling to make ends meet it probably makes for less thrilling television and harder to contribute to the pod. Still that is a limitation and representation I would love to see.

  26. I just came across this, having just watched the first episode of Sense8. (Just the first episode: unlike when I watched the first episode of Orphan Black, I found no plot hooks sufficiently gripping to urge me to continue.)
    I very much like the show’s sense of style, but I agree with your criticisms of the default American-viewed stereotypes of the other cultures. But tell me, what makes you think the San Francisco in this show is any less stereotyped? I live there, and San Francisco is not one endless Gay Pride parade, which is the impression the flashcuts of that plotline give. Yeah, the scenery of the city is impressively varied, if one recognizes enough of it to be meaningful, and the plot and characterization are daring and thoughtful, but it’s just as much a one-dimensional view as those of Nairobi, Seoul, and Mumbai.

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