By which I mean, two pieces of media that focus on sensory experience in one way or another.
Perfect Sense did not, in the trailer I saw, bill itself as a science fiction movie, and in a lot of ways it isn’t. The focus is primarily on how the relationship between two people (a chef at a restaurant, and an epidemiologist who lives in an apartment overlooking the restaurant alley) is affected by an unexplained (and inexplicable) global epidemic that begins with people losing their sense of smell. But the epidemic doesn’t stop there: next they lose taste, then hearing, then sight. What makes it SFnal is the exploration of how individuals and society adapt to these changes. Eva Green’s epidemiologist never does figure out what’s causing the change, but at the restaurant where Ewan MacGregor’s chef works, they keep looking for ways to pursue their art even as the basis for it is pulled out from under them. Smell is a huge part of how we experience food, so when that goes away, they begin putting together the most strongly-flavored dishes they can. When taste goes, they turn to sound and texture: crunch, squish, softness, grittiness. (There’s a great scene where the restaurant manager reads out a glowing review of their work.) The transitions are bad; they’re always preceded by some kind of huge emotional swing, and many of these are extremely destructive. But after hearing fades, you see a table full of people at the restaurant carrying on a cheerful, animated conversation in sign language. Since the characters we’ve been following are still communicating through written notes and a handful of very rudimentary signs, there’s an unspoken implication that the people at those table were deaf long before this began: what the viewer has been encouraged to see as a calamitous loss is ordinary life for them, and that life can still be good.
I usually like my SFnal exploration more front and center, rather than squeezed in around the edges. But the anthropologist in me quite enjoyed this one.
Sadly, I was not as enthused by Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.
They did a great job setting up the cast. Our main characters are eight individuals linked by telepathy, and it’s obvious the writers had a mission statement to represent a broad cross-section of the world: the cop from Chicago and the hacker from San Francisco might seem like standard issue, the DJ from Iceland and the thief from Berlin a little less so — but then you get the banker from Seoul, the film star from Mexico City, the privileged young woman from Mumbai, and the bus driver from Nairobi. Four are women, four are men; one of the men (the film star) is gay, and one of the women (the hacker) is a transgender lesbian. I’m sure some people have sneered at this as “diversity for diversity’s sake” (as if that’s a bad thing), but it also matters to the story — because one of the important things going on here is that they have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different assumptions about the world. And it’s fun to watch those things collide. The “sensates” can project their spirits out so they see each other’s surroundings, and then they learn to possess each other’s bodies. It means they can give one another comfort and advice and, in a pinch, solve their problems for them: the Korean banker is also a participant in underground fighting rings, and kicks the asses of people threatening other members of her cluster. The Kenyan driver winds up behind the wheel of more than a few getaway vehicles. The Mexican movie star lies like a rug to get the German thief out of trouble, etc.
So why didn’t I like it more?
In a nutshell: too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby. In the first episode of the series, it becomes obvious that (of course) there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. By the end of the twelve-episode first season, we know that . . . there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. We can put some faces and names to individuals involved, and we know there’s a doctor who specializes in lobotomizing them — but we don’t know why, or what makes sensate clusters come into existence, or really anything of great substance about the metaplot. Most of the show’s attention is devoted to the lives of the sensates in this cluster and how they interact with one another. This means you’re tracking eight different plotlines at once: there are hints that some of them may connect, but even after twelve episodes, it’s little more than hints. And however much I may enjoy some parts of the character development (like the horrific encounter between Nomi and her family, or the hilarity of the kind-of threesome Lito ends up in), ultimately, I was really frustrated that the show seemed mostly content to wander around in the characters’ lives without really tying the whole group together and going somewhere with them.
Really, the opening credit sequence perfectly represents the problem. It’s a montage of shots from all around the world: famous sites, scenes of daily life, brief little snippets from Nairobi and Seoul and San Francisco and Mexico City and all the other places the characters are from. But there’s no arc to it, no coherent thread other than “hi, our show takes place all over the world!” It is, to use the old description of history, just one damn thing after another. Individually the bits may be lovely, but I want the whole to add up to more. And while it’s entirely possible the show will get there eventually . . . I’m not sure I’m willing to wait around for “eventually” to happen. I gave it one season to hook me; I don’t know that I’ll give it more.