“Sense8’s” Despite Best Intentions, is America-centric
By Julia Clausen
The Wachowskis are once again turning heads with the release of the second season of their widely popular, but also highly controversial Netflix series, “Sense8.” The show follows the stories of eight individuals from around the world who are suddenly awakened to a shared psychic connection, forming a collective consciousness called a “cluster.” They can share talents and feel what the others are feeling, and they become a literal example of the power of empathy to unite the whole world.
Despite this idealistic message, the treatment of the non-American cultures in the show is surface level at best and imperialist at worst. The treatment of the non-American cultures in the show is, aAccording to series co-creator J. Michael Straczynski in an interview with Indiewire, these depictions are the result of several months of live-in research, where they gleaned world-building details from locals and scouted locations. However, the creators have never included local talent in the writing or production processes. The result? Each location, though lovingly drawn, remains firmly rooted in the perspective of an enamored tourist rather than a local.
In the first season, the show covered very little plot, focusing instead on developing each of the individual characters in their particular spaces. Somehow, even though so much time was dedicated to character depth, each person’s story felt like a stereotype: the Korean woman skilled in martial arts, the Kenyan man who is always optimistic despite his mother having AIDS, the German criminal, the all-American white cop from Chicago, the dramatic Mexican telenovela star, and, of course, the Indian woman caught between an arranged marriage and true love.
However, since the writers had 10 episodes to develop these stereotypes, they did an excellent job of particularizing them. By the end of the season, each character somehow felt both complex and stereotypical.
With the primary characters established, season two makes an enormous leap from character development to conquering the world. Kala (Tina Desai) in India takes down her father-in-law’s enormous pharmaceutical company. Sun (Doona Bae) becomes a vigilante, fighting the flawed justice system of South Korea. Capheas (Toby Onwumere), a bus driver in Nairobi, suddenly finds himself running for public office against a corrupt Kenyan president. Nomi (Jamie Clayton) works with the hacker group Anonymous to run from the FBI. And Lito (Angel Silvestre), when he is rejected by the Mexican film industry for being gay, finds acceptance in none other than Hollywood, California.
Each problem on its own could fill an entire television series, but “Sense8” tackles, well, eight of them all at once.
These conflicts deal with the socio-economic and political structures of the entire planet, and yet somehow, all of the resolutions are decidedly American. Lito is welcomed into an idealized version of the American film industry where all people are supposedly accepted for who they are. And Capheas’ meteoric rise to fame and political office – the classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” type of underdog story – stinks strongly of an American’s incessant need to fix Africa. Even the actor who plays Capheas is actually American, unlike the majority of the cast who are native to their characters’ locations.
The main message of the show is very clear: If only we all took the time to talk and understand each other, we would find that everyone in the world has the same heart and we could solve the world’s problems.
But is that a claim these show creators can make?
The majority of the production team are white Americans who, as much as they may love and cherish all the nations of the world, do not necessarily hold the same values and perspectives as those who live in India or Kenya or Iceland.
Even so, the Wachowskis have gathered an amazing production crew. John Tull (“Thin Red Line” and “Braveheart”) as the seasoned cinematographer, Joseph Jett Sally (“Star Wars” prequels) and their team take on the immense task of editing together scenes filmed on as many as seven locations around the world. No matter how audiences may feel about the heavy-handed message of the show, they cannot deny its artistic merit.
Plus, the stories are beautiful, even if they are melodramatic and painfully sweet. And the characters are very loveable in the way that children are lovable and adorable.
Somehow the sheer ambition of the Wachowskis’ goal, the naivete required to earnestly execute such an enormous and far-fetched project, lets them off the hook.
If the show were any more grounded in fact, it might sink under the weight of all of its claims. Viewers might not play along with such bold political movements if the show weren’t already a science fiction narrative about a new telepathic species of human. As it stands, the Wachowskis have created a world where literally anything can happen, and everything can be fixed.
And somehow, whether through the magic of cinematographer John Toll, or by the world-building support of the loveable characters, “Sense8’s” second season manages, against all odds, to float.