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Death of a Cluster: Why Sense8 is Exactly the TV Cancellation We Don't Need in 2017

Sense8 is dead. Long live Sense8.

Arguably the most original of Netflix's original series has been unceremoniously canned after just two short seasons, leaving fans to speculate why, and flood the internet with outrage (to which I’m… now going to contribute). As I began writing this, a petition to renew Sense8 for a third season had collected just shy of half a million signatures with no sign of slowing. And for the first time in the history of cancelled shows, I’ve added my name to it. Because I think, for the first time in my life, I’m genuinely pissed that a TV show has been prematurely shafted.


Demonstrating the eight stages of grief over series cancellation.

Why did Sense8 stir me and so many others to action in a way that, say, the quiet, sensitive genius of Looking couldn't? Certainly, it has something to do with closure. Looking ended on an inconclusive, but logical and satisfying note, while Sense8 has clearly been pulled mid-flight after a rushed final episode ending in a cliff-hanger. Maybe it’s because Sense8 was a genuine artistic risk from three of sci-fi’s most inventive creative minds. Or maybe just because it seemed like a much-needed burst of optimism in an increasingly divided and cynical world.

Stay with me. I promise there will be no kum-ba-yas. There will, however, be a few SPOILERS.

Sense8 used its wild sci-fi premise to explore globalism in a way unlike any show before it. Its entire conceit was built on a kind of butterfly effect via human connection, and the idea you could connect to someone at the other end of the earth, living a life totally removed from yours in near every way. That very idea creates a level of empathy between characters that’s beyond the reach of even the most upbeat TV. And Sense8 served it through the kind of heart-stopping action scenes and humanism that the Wachowskis have been trading in ever since their stellar lesbian heist thriller, Bound. Sense8 wasn’t just the only show on TV managing to do this. It was the only show to try.

Sense8 balanced its warm and fuzzies with some pretty dark ideas.
In Sense8, you could possibly say black lives matter because they are all lives. When Kala, often bearing the show’s heart at its most transparent, is horrified that her husband’s pharmaceutical company is selling expired HIV drugs to Kenya, it’s because she cares for Capheus’ positive mother as if she were her own. She similarly struggles first hand with the homophobic abuse suffered by Lito, all while feeling helpless over pressures on her own pre-ordained love life. But Sense8 didn’t always have to use its sci-fi elements to celebrate human empathy. The wedding scene in which Nomi’s dad tells the FBI investigator to unhand his daughter, for the first time acknowledging her true gender, is just the kind of wrenching and cathartic needed to sell its undeniably preachy earnestness. That’s a tough trick to pull off, particularly in a mostly cynical television landscape, and the fact that Sense8 could do so routinely without these moments ever seeming artificially injected was one of its great gifts.

Admittedly, these fuzzy feelings don’t pay bills, at least not to the tune of the $9 million an episode Sense8’s second season cost to produce. But creatively, the cancellation is a huge loss. Good as they are, have any of Netflix’s other series come close to having this kind of emotional resonance, much less within an out and out genre/action series?

A friend of mine did claim that Jessica Jones reached her in a very similar way that Sense8 reached me, and speculated that Luke Cage might hold similar meaning for black Americans (though on this, neither of us is really qualified to comment). But that only addresses part of Sense8’s appeal, which went way beyond representation and identity politics. Certainly, we often respond more to media in which we see reflections of ourselves. Based on the admittedly few episodes of Jessica Jones I’ve seen (I enjoyed them, but to be honest, I’m so numb to the comic book adaptation juggernaut these days I haven't continued), I can understand that, particularly given the scope and depth of character experience the broader canvas of a TV series allows.

Doona Bae has unfinished business.
But Sense8 was never just about LGBT connection. It was about all human connection. Nomi and Lito may have shared experiences the other sensates aren’t part of, but they are never isolated from the other sensates because of their sexuality. That’s the whole point. The entire premise of the show is shared empathy and experience with those unlike ourselves, celebrating those differences while also transcending them, sharing what it is to be someone else. That’s sci-fi taking empathy to its most intimate possibilities in a way that would make Deanna Troi’s head explode. Perhaps literally. It’s not as if TNG never went there.

Speaking of intimacy, there was also the sex. Oh, boy, was there the sex! Besides giving us a lovely new use for the term ‘clusterfuck,’ Sense8 was not at all shy about reminding us just how much fun sex can be. There was straight sex, gay sex, bi sex, casual sex, committed sex, sex in public, awkward sex, and at all times, zero judgement about sex, and no sense of exploitation. This is a sure sign of a series willing to subvert patriarchal expectations. The sexual appetites of LGBTs and women were celebrated on equal terms with straight men. Not every member of the cluster was a horndog, which would probably have tipped us into exploitation territory, but Sense8 stands out as a rare show to use sex as a celebration not just of love, but of broader life.

Yes, the show could have gone further at times. For all the positive (perhaps obscenely, unrealistically positive) depictions of LGBT characters, Lito/Hernando and Nomi/Amanita never really broke out of their safe, monogamous relationship moulds, except of course for the aforementioned clusterfucks, which isn’t a flaw so much as a missed opportunity to push the boundaries of queer characters on screen even further. Non-monogamous couples, queer or otherwise are still all too rarely given any positive media time. Of course, one could also argue that by the Christmas episode, the boys had a rather unique and very functional 3-way marriage with Daniela, so hey, three cheers for what Sense8 did manage to do in that respect. And since it was cancelled prematurely, who know what might eventually have been?

Could Lito's domestic bliss have forced audiences to think outside the cluster?

Right now, it looks like we never will. Less than an hour ago, Netflix confirmed the cancellation with no indication of closure via a feature-length special or telemovie, though I guess we can stay hopeful. The show's corpse is hardly in the ground, after all. But even if it doesn't wind up happening, we will always have great feature-length Sense8 in the form of that surprisingly glorious Christmas episode, even if Netflix aren't prepared to deliver a happy fucking new year.

Comments

  1. Thank you for signing the petition! I hope someday Netflix's marketing arm will reach out to some other less costly medium and give the the people who enjoyed this show some sense of a continuation or at least a conclusion. Good stories deserve endings, maybe in book form!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would share this on twitter, but I have been locked out, I think netflix reported me X_X

    ReplyDelete
  3. Browncoats (Firefly fans) stayed faithful and finally got Serenity. After years and years, The Dark Tower is finally a movie. WE WILL NOT GIVE UP! THE WAY THAT THIS ALL WENT DOWN HAS JUST PISSED US OFF!

    ReplyDelete

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