Monday, May 15, 2017

"Sense8" Season Two Recap/Sensate Ranking

Spoilers for season two of Sense8 after the jump:

Sense8 season two is a complete mess.

"Well, sure," you may say, "but isn't the show's sense of reckless creative abandon a big part of what makes it so appealing?" And you'd be correct. This was a top five show for me last year, and no doubt a big part of what made that first season so special was the way it threw caution to the wind at multiple points, staging scenes that no other show—outside of maybe the more out-there anthology series that don't have to worry about such things as maintaining a coherent plot—would ever dare to. Action sequences bleed into global karaoke sing-alongs, there are plenty of corny declarations of undying love that shouldn't work (but mostly do), and the show plays with about a dozen different genres over the course of just as many episodes. Along the way there's the occasional bit of grand philosophizing that falls flat, or a stock supporting character who never manages to become anything more. But such mild imperfections are a small price to pay for the scale and the raw humanity of Sense8's ambitious vision.

Those imperfections are only mild in season one, however, because the narrative bones of the series seemed so sturdy and (relatively) straightforward. The globe- and genre-hopping succeeded in large part because each of the eight storylines was reasonably well crafted—some characters were better than others (Riley, while much improved in season two, tended to suck the energy out of the room early on), but there was a clarity of purpose and a good sense of pace to every single one. This gave the show a great foundation upon which to work its real magic—the numerous brilliantly edited setpieces in which the sensates helped one another out of sticky situations as a group and/or leaned on each other for emotional support. (Plus the occasional telepathic orgy, of course.) Add in a nifty smattering of mythology that hinted at potentially bigger things to come and a menacing villain in Whispers, and you had all the makings of a thrilling debut season.

The smartest thing season two does is to increase the volume and complexity of those sorts of group scenes. All eight central characters now appear onscreen together quite a few times, and the two- or three-character setpieces are no less engaging than they were a year and a half ago. The sensate connection has always felt in part like a metaphor for the power of collective action, and when the show doubles down on this aspect, it pretty consistently soars. Even when the pacing is questionable, like during the season's wildly rushed final double-cross of Whispers (a moment that would have been so much more effective had we gotten to see parts of the plan come together beforehand), it's almost impossible not to pump your fists at the sheer energy radiating off screen when everyone starts functioning as part of a well-oiled machine. With Will declaring war on Whispers and BPO in the final moments, season three promises to be even more heavy on that sort of stuff, which is an exciting prospect to consider.

Elsewhere, though, the pacing grows equally uneven without nearly as much badass teamwork to compensate for it. That's in no small part due to everyone's favorite genre show curse: mythology. When deployed properly, such mythology can be wonderful, but TV history is chock full of sci-fi/fantasy shows that have eaten themselves alive by growing too murky in this area. Sense8 may not be quite at season two Orphan Black levels just yet, but as the show delves into an increasingly complicated backstory involving Angelica, Jonas, Whispers, and a bunch of new characters in a way that somehow leaves them even more enigmatic than before, it's hard to escape the sense that it could be standing on the precipice of going down that route.

The general iffiness of these looks into the past would be less of an issue, though, if the show wasn't simultaneously placing several of its best characters in storylines that (unlike the numerous moments of growth and evolution seen in season one) often feel like an attempt to stall for time until that big Whispers showdown at the end. I'm somewhat optimistic this won't be the case in season three, which sure seems as though it's going to upend the established structure of the show in a major way. But it makes this sophomore campaign . . . not a slump, exactly (it's still too often delightful in too many ways for that), but occasionally stagnant at a time when the show should've been taking off into the creative stratosphere.

For a more specific look at those various ups and downs, I've ranked the sensates from best to worst this year:

8) Kala

When Rajan announces in the season finale that he's assisting an investigation against political corruption that may threaten Kala's safety in India, it feels like an admission of defeat on the part of Sense8. It's a contrived development, for sure, but one that feels necessary to extricate her from this go-nowhere storyline. A certain sense of aimlessness here might be fitting, given how trapped she feels for much of the year. But the storytelling often doesn't seem deliberate in that way—not with the show occasionally flirting with a new direction (a potential conflict with Rajan over his company's business practices, for instance) only to abandon it almost immediately every time. It's just meandering and dull, and too often it makes her feel removed from the season's other happenings. She still comes alive in the scenes where she puts her scientific know-how to use to help her fellow sensates, but other than that, she's by far the least interesting sensate this year.

7) Capheus

Capheus running for political office is an interesting idea in theory, and perhaps a nod to the idea that transformative change can be fought for in multiple ways. All that said, I can't say it was especially riveting to watch unfold. Toby Onwumere does a fine job stepping into the character (even if his version of Capheus proves to be a little less high-energy), but neither the fight against corruption angle nor his newfound relationship with Zakia really ever took off dramatically for me. Like Kala's arc, the whole thing feels a bit scattered and frequently adrift from the main action, even if there's at least a greater sense of narrative movement here. (Also, while I tend to be a sucker for a good redemption story, Silas seemingly joining the good guys feels awfully abrupt and not particularly earned.)

6) Wolfgang

Wolfgang's storyline this season had all the makings early on of a messy quagmire that could have dragged him down completely, what with the references to complicated feuds between various directional underworld kings. (I can't be the only one who thought of Game of Thrones there, and that is decidedly not something I want out of this show.) And . . . well, it does indeed end up being something of a mess. What saves it in part is that it's a moderately fun mess once femme fatale sensate Lila shows up. She's not really a super well-written character, and at some points I'll admit I gave up on trying to keep track of who she was working with and her overall agenda. But Valeria Bilello has a ton of fun with the role and some sizzling chemistry with Max Riemelt, which is just enough to keep things from totally falling apart.

Also, Felix lives! Yay Felix!

5) Lito

The Lito/Hernando/Daniela dynamic remains a delight in season two, as the latter two help him navigate the career fallout of coming out. (Daniela's virtuoso telephone call performance, which lands him an audition for a major Hollywood role, may be the single best non-action highlight of the season. It's applause-worthy.) And while his action-star career appears to be stalled at the moment, the show still found a way to sneak in a few more transcendently cheesy moments in that regard. None of this is the dramatic high point of season two, mind you, and I have questions about how well a "Lito in Hollywood" situation would be able to sustain interest long-term (if they go that route). But  so far, it largely works. Let's also throw in a few bonus points for Hernando's brilliance in turning the tables on that obnoxious college student early in the season.

4 and 3) Will and Riley

Here's the thing: Will and Riley are still pretty much deathly boring together any time they're doing the lovey-dovey "gazing longingly into each other's eyes" stuff. On a show with so many other great love stories, theirs still mostly just makes me yawn. Fortunately, it's not the main thing carrying them through this season, as the show places them front and center for some of the year's most thrilling material. Yes, much of that does involve the overly hazy mythology, but Will's battle of wits (and wills) with Whispers delivers some impressive tension and cool double-cross moments, while Riley's attempts to connect with sensates from other clusters is exciting world-expansion. There's also more of a general feeling of fun and humor to some their interactions than I thought there was last year. Most improved sensates? Definitely.

2) Nomi

First off: Nomi and Amanita together are still the best.

It was also another great year in general for my favorite sensate of season one. While her scenes perhaps don't have the same sense of unified momentum that Sun's do, there aren't many Nomi moments this season that fail to be awesome in some way or another. The increased role for Bug—one of my favorite bit players of the first season—as he becomes the third member of this particular dream team is a welcome sight, and the teamwork and banter between the three of them was great all year. (The movie theater scene, in which Bug "meets" his cinematic hero Lito through Nomi, is one of the many highlights in that department.) Her toast at her sister's wedding, meanwhile, brought on plenty of waterworks over here, as did the double marriage proposal with Amanita in the finale. There's not much the show could have done better here.

1) Sun

Sun's arc is season two's most satisfying overall story—a momentum-filled, emotionally resonant quest for revenge with just a dash of romance mixed in for good measure. This is the show at the absolute top of its game, offering both moments of individual Sun awesomeness (among them the fight/flirting session with Detective Mun, which delighted me to no end) and that wonderful sense of collective power mentioned above. It excels at fist-pumping action—the prison break in episode two is probably the greatest action sequence in Sense8 history, and the final showdown later in the season is almost as good. But it also works just as well in the quieter scenes where Sun reunites with her dog or seeks counsel from her fellow sensates at the cemetery. Sense8 may have gotten a tad too messy for its own good this year, but this is one of the glorious exceptions.

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