I generally find out about TV shows either through links to thinkpieces posted on Twitter, or through gifsets posted on Tumblr. I suspect the gifsets have tended to be a more reliable guide to good shows than the thinkpieces, a suspicion that was reinforced when I finally got round to watching Sense8 recently. As the gifsets promised, it’s great, but it’s great in a particular way – formally challenging, conceptually fascinating – that I’m surprised I didn’t see more thinkpieces about it.
The formal innovation stems directly from the show’s premise, which concerns eight people, scattered around the world, who discover that they can share each others sensations. The first episode is largely about showing the characters begin to discover this, in the process introducing a visual language to communicate this sharing of sensation. It does so with such beauty and cinematographic confidence it perhaps sets up expectations the rest of the series can’t live up to: it reminded me of Upstream Color, a film which shares the premise of shared sensation, and explores it with a formalism that is completely breathtaking. While the first episode of Sense8 took my breath away as well, the rest of the series is a bit more restrained and develops its language of collective sensation more subtly.
The benefit of that subtlety, and the extended canvas of 13 episodes, is that the show can take time to situate all the characters. It’s genuinely impressive that the show manages to tell distinct and fully developed stories about each of its eight leads; indeed, particularly in the early episodes, large periods of time often pass with no mention of the shows premise at all, as we follow one of the individual characters’ stories. The most obvious way the show connects the characters together is through the overarching narrative concerning where their ability to sense in common came from, and the various forces trying to exploit or curtail that ability. This conspiracy plotline is the part of the show I find least interesting; I’m much more interested in the smaller moments of connection between the characters, where they help each other at first just by talking, and increasingly by sharing skills and experiences. It was only on re-watching the show that I picked up on the way it develops the characters increasing comfort in sharing their sensoriums, to the point where in the post-season-one special episode, characters are without thinking about it lend one another their bodies to open a door or take a drink.
It’s this presentation of sensation as the grounds of collectivity which is the most interesting and radical thing about the show. There’s a long history (called liberalism) of thinking of collectivity fundamentally as political, and the political as fundamentally about rationality, either a conversation of reason-giving or a submission to the rule of nature; in this way of thinking, feeling is purely interior, the realm of the private. Marxist materialism turns this order on its feet, rejecting the hiving off of collectivity into the narrow sphere of universal reason, and emphasising the the material threads that tie together collectivity. In Sense8 the Wachowski’s have put together a visual system for representing this sensuous materialism.