The 'Sense 8' Christmas Special Offers Fun, but Not Enough Plot or Character Development
Sense8 returns with time-skipping, Yuletide charm, a key recasting, and another orgy scene without quite building on the plot from season one.
Sense8Cast: Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Tina Desai, Tuppence Middleton, Max Riemelt, Miguel Angel Silvestre
Subtitle: "A Christmas Special"
Air date: 2016-12-23
This review contains spoilers for "A Christmas Special".
I remember rapidly refreshing Google as soon as I finished season one of Sense8, the Netflix sci-fi epic by the Wachowski sisters and J. Michael Straczynski, fervently hoping for news of its renewal. The first season, which dropped onto the streaming platform in summer 2015, was a cheesy but heartfelt adventure about eight people from far-flung corners of the globe who become psychically linked and must use their bond to protect themselves and each other from nefarious forces seeking their destruction.
As can be expected from the Wachowskis, Sense8's first 12-episode season combined thrilling visuals and gushing emotion with less successful elements such as awkward pacing and banal, overly metaphorical dialogue. Yet these eight individuals -- Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago cop; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ; Kala (Tina Desai), a Mumbai-based pharmacist; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a German safecracker; Sun (Doona Bae), a Seoul businesswoman; Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Nairobi bus driver; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a Mexican telenovela actor; and Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a San Francisco hacker -- interacted in ways that were both heartwarming and utterly bizarre, culminating in a memorable psychic orgy scene, a sing-along to Four Non Blondes' "What’s Up?", and a gruesome montage of each of them being born (all on August 8th, naturally).
The relationships and bonds that formed among the Sensates, as these characters are called, were not only awe-inspiring, such as when Sun used her clandestine martial arts skills to protect Capheus, acting through his body as well as alongside him, or when Capheus used his skill at driving to rescue Nomi from attackers, but touching and romantic as well. When a second season was finally announced, I was beyond thrilled.
The much-awaited second season arrives in May of 2017, but to tide us over, the team from Sense8 made a two-hour Christmas special (creatively titled "A Christmas Special", which began streaming on Netflix on 23 December. The special provides both a partial sense of resolution to many of the first season's plot threads, as well as several moments of respite, which ultimately made me question the utility of Christmas specials for heavily serialized television as a whole. When we catch up with the Sensates in this new special, they've successfully escaped Whispers (Terrence Mann), the mysterious bearded man intent on hunting them down, and are scattered across the world once more for the most part.
Yet the status quo is quickly established to be tenuous and delicate, as Will's mind has already been invaded by Whispers, forcing him to continually dose himself with heroin to cloud his head. Riley, Will's lover, has taken on the role of his protector, constantly moving the pair of them to unknown locations in hope of evading their pursuer. Kala has suppressed her love for Wolfgang enough to marry Rajan (Purab Kohli), the wealthy, family-approved suitor from the previous season; naturally, all isn't well on their honeymoon. Lito, who's hidden his boyfriend Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) from the homophobic media and his judgmental fanbase, is unceremoniously outed, and must deal with the aftermath. Wolfgang finally kills his abusive, violent uncle, which creates a power vacuum among the crime sects of his native Berlin. Nomi, who narrowly escaped a lobotomy last season, is on the lam with her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman). Capheus is struggling to rescue his van-driving business and keep the status quo in his home community. Lastly, Sun is seething, locked away in prison while her greedy brother, who murdered their father, takes over the family business.
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Complicating the show's return is the recasting of the character of Capheus, a season one highlight, whose sunny disposition and delight at life made him a fan-favorite. Yet due to what has been referred to as creative differences between Aml Ameen, the original actor, and others on set, another actor, Toby Onwumere, entered the role beginning in the Christmas episode. Recasting a character on an already-running television show is no-one’s ideal scenario, and the fact that the character recast was the only black male character of significance in the show has unfortunate implications, similar to those that arose when Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard as Rhodey in the Iron Man franchise. Such a move can imply that all black actors are the same; yet getting rid of the character of Capheus would arguably have been the worse choice, both in terms of the politics of killing off the show’s only significant black male character as well as disrupting the fabric of this tight-knit group of mentally-linked Sensates.
Thus the status quo of Sense8 continues, but not without one of Capheus' friends telling him early on in "A Christmas Special" that he's been looking different recently. I'm not sure if that's supposed to make us laugh, or appreciate how clever the showrunners are, but it's a throwaway line of dialogue that really doesn't help us, as the audience, acclimatize ourselves to this new iteration of Capheus. Additionally, Lilly Wachowski, who, like Lana, has come out as transgender, and announced she's taking a break from the series, reducing the creative team of three down to two. All in all, the more news I read about Sense8, the more I worried about what its return to my computer screen would ultimately entail.
If that sounds like a lot of information to take in, it is; yet, much of the show's narrative remains unchanged by the end of this two-hour special, for better or worse. Since the special is about the length of two episodes of the show, naturally the plot emphasizes some characters while leaving others hardly touched. This aspect is welcome in some cases, and less-than-ideal in others; not all of the micro-storylines operating within "A Christmas Special" are equally interesting. Even with an emphasis on the aftermath of Lito's outing and the future of his career, Kala's half-hearted marriage and issues with losing her virginity, and Will's struggle to continue to function and also be there for his fellow Sensates, these particular threads deserve more attention than what the narrative allows. Yet on the other hand, Capheus, Nomi, and Riley are given next to nothing to do narratively, while Wolfgang's and Sun's storylines amount to spinning their wheels, awaiting a dramatic confrontation or sea change of some kind.
The Sensate pairs of Riley/Will and Kala/Wolfgang also remain unchanged in status from the beginning of the special to the end -- in sentiment as well as in practicality -- which is rather unsatisfying. Will Kala ever stop convincing herself that she can be happy with her husband? Her first attempt at sleeping with Rajan once again involves mentally "walking in" on Wolfgang in a similarly sexual context, which is hardly subtle, since their first meeting involved him appearing to her, naked, during her wedding to this man she doesn't love. Yet the episode ends with her once again avowing that she and Wolfgang can never be together, which will probably change once again in the new batch of episodes in May. Even more frustratingly, Riley's sole purpose in this special is to hold Will, comfort him, and administer his drugs, which I really, really hope is not the extent of her role in the coming season.
A bright spot of hope, however, can be found in the Nomi storyline, which involves her and Amanita seeking refuge in various communities of San Francisco: an LGBT shelter, Amanita's family, and a hacker friend of Nomi's. In season one, we saw how Nomi, who's transgender, has largely lost the love and support of her family, and so this emphasis on Nomi's chosen communities and families is touching, but I would've wanted her being on the run to have more of a sense of actual stakes. Even with a scary agent questioning Amanita and arriving at their hideout, I just didn't feel worried for her sake. Similarly, Lito coming out has essentially destroyed his career as he knows it, uprooting his and Hernando's lives, but because the narrative is so filled with other moments from other characters, the trauma of being outed against his will is largely glossed over.
When I finished "A Christmas Special", I felt as if I'd watched not a coherent two-hour block of television, but rather a series of meandering storylines punctuated with big interconnected set-pieces, including the kind of "what the fuck is happening?" moments Sense8 is becoming infamous for. In this special alone, we have Capheus' bus blowing up in a fiery inferno; all ten of the main characters (the Sensates plus Amanita and Hernando) having a massive mental orgy, linked by Riley/Will, Lito/Hernando, Nomi/Amanita, and Wolfang/some random girl having sex all at the same time; a brightly-colored, exuberant birthday celebration for the Sensates; and a set of more muted but still cheesy Christmas and New Years' montages.
While it's always a joy to see all eight of the Sensates in a room together and interacting with one another, as opposed to being wrapped up in their own disparate storylines, it doesn't distract from the fact that these micro-stories, for the most part, just don't really excite compared to the overall mythos of the Sensates and the danger they're in. I kept finding myself wanting to cut away from Capheus' storyline, for example, which really only centers on his bus or his mother, and find out more about how Whispers is connected to the main characters. Alternately, the writers could give Capheus more interesting things to do, such as have an entanglement with the Sensate's enemies of his own, or interact more with Sun, who's already close to him, but this course of action seems unlikely. Each of the individual actors is doing great work, and are still fun to root for, but the performances don’t make up for the weak structuring of this special.
My last thought about "A Christmas Special" has to do with the narrative usefulness -- or lack thereof -- of the Christmas special in serialized storytelling. As it stands, viewers will probably be able to skip this special and go on straight to season two, without missing anything of much consequence. This likelihood is unfortunate because it really restricts what a Christmas special can actually accomplish in non-episodic television. In a show like Friends, which more or less returns to the status quo at the end of each episode, having a one-off story wouldn’t make much of a difference. Yet because every episode of Sense8 changes the conditions of the narrative, having a stand-alone episode prevents the overall narrative from advancing further.
Instead, "A Christmas Story" feels like the show is standing still because it doesn't offer deeper characterizations or give each Sensate’s storyline the attention it deserves or, in some cases, a compelling storyline at all. With an arc of such danger and urgency, "A Christmas Story" does offer a welcome return to the characters, but will likely turn out to be extraneous. I guess what I would've wanted in terms of giving each of the main characters equal importance and weight would've been impossible in a two-hour special; that's what season two is for.