Netflix has amped up its queer quotient with two original series Sense8 and Grace and Frankie. Only one show gets it somewhat right.
Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers from a different part of the world. They each have a vision of the same catalytic event and find themselves reborn as Sensates: otherwise normal human beings who are mentally and emotionally connected, being able to communicate, sense, and use each other’s knowledge, language and skills.
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) and J. Michael Straczynski (Thor, World War Z), people who excel at the action-adventure genre, conceived the series. They do several things right. A racially appropriate, talented, international cast for each role: check. Casting trans actress Jamie Clayton for the role of transgender software programmer and hacktivist Nomi: check. For that matter, writing a transgender character at all and one who is in a loving, healthy relationship: double check. Filming on location, from Iceland to India, to increase the wow factor: check. Skillful blending of one Sensate with another as they begin to connect emotionally: check. Heck, creating a show that is essentially about human interactions that defy time, space, logic, sexual and religious beliefs: check, check, check!
But the series is extremely uneven. The episodes can either drag or move too fast once you get past the kinetic opening title sequence with music—by Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) and his Pale 3 band mate Johnny Klimek—that makes you twitch with techno-dystrophy. Tykwer, incidentally, directs two diametrically opposite episodes: the sweet and meditative episode 4 (What’s Going On?) and the disturbingly über-violent episode 11 (Just Turn the Wheel and the Future Changes). Some characters and situations are formulaic. The villains talk with accents and overact while the Sensates look earnestly into the camera and whisper; that’s how we know they are good people. Car chases that go against the flow of traffic and shootouts that end in a bloodbath: yawn! Close-ups that make the bad guys look like creatures in a fun-house mirror. Seen it, over it!
The whole thing is meant to titillate, including the infamous orgy scene in a swimming pool that has gone viral by now. Sense8 has believable gay and transgender characters; human beings—not caricatures—that we can relate to and root for. You judge for yourself if it deserves the generous label of “progressive” that some have given it. Beyond portraying sexuality as fluid in some imaginary Sensate world, the series does not have any new or radical ideas about how it all translates to the real world. Perhaps that is to come in future seasons, one can hope. Kudos to the show for generating a heated debate on this subject. As its popularity grows there are bound to be online quizzes and memes on “Which Sensate Are You?” Can I be Daryl Hannah? She’s apparently got the easiest paycheck on this show so far. She’s credited in every episode but appears in only three, mostly as a corpse, for a grand total of six minutes!
The first two episodes of Sense8 are confusing as the show introduces its characters, plot points, and locations, and tries to find its balance. But it is always intriguing, leaving you wanting more. The first two episodes of Grace and Frankie are a disaster of such horrific proportions that you may not progress to any subsequent episode. And you may be much happier for it.
Grace (Jane Fonda) has been married to Robert (Martin Sheen) for forty years. Frankie (Lily Tomlin) has been in a similar long-term marriage with Sol (Sam Waterston). Robert and Sol have been law partners in a successful firm. This tight-knit foursome of septuagenarians is shaken out of its complacency when the men declare their same-sex love for each other and promptly leave their wives for their own life of domesticity.
You can hear the studio pitch: Wouldn’t it be fantastic to bring four award-winning stalwarts of screen and television together in a series that blasts off on a controversial premise? It looks like someone forgot to offer the obvious answer, “Sure, if you have anything original to say other than relationships are relationships whether you are gay or straight so we should love our gay folks.”
Once you get past the conceit of the basic premise, the show’s downfall is its complete lack of originality. It depends heavily on an age-old formula: Create characters that don’t communicate well or communicate at all; have them bickering with each other…a lot; make them unable to function unless they are in a relationship; subscribe to standard notions of masculinity and femininity; make lots of old people jokes about incontinence, bodily changes, and memory loss; make stereotypical jokes about gay people. Maybe the show is saying that Grace and Frankie—like many television shows—are screwed because they just will not snap out of a tiresome rubric.
Rare glimpses of brilliance cannot save this show from its own missteps. Like when Robert and Sol contemplate whether they have left one conventional relationship to step into another conventional relationship (episode 11, The Secrets). The other gem in this show is a completely unexpected one because she is a supporting character. June Diane Raphael plays Brianna, Grace and Robert’s brassy and wildly funny daughter. She’s like finding a treasure amid wreckage.