As I started to watch Sense8 this week, the question I was often asked was “What’s that show even about?” It should be a simple question to answer, right? 99.9% of shows are pretty easily summarized in one or two sentences (“The show is about a group of people who work in the Parks and Recreation Department in a small town in Indiana” or “It’s about a group of people trying to survive the Zombie Apocalypse” or “After a tragic plane crash, a rag tag team of survivors try to stay alive on a mysterious Island”) Sense8, however, not only cannot be summarized, it’s legitimate hard to describe in general, even without word limits. The story the Wachowski siblings are trying to tell is so ambitious that it’s most concise form is probably the one it exists in. Sense8 isn’t the only show with this quality. Try to describe Game Of Thrones two sentences or less. I’ll wait… It’s incredibly difficult, right? The reason it’s so hard is that Game Of Thrones isn’t telling one story, it’s telling a pretty insane amount of them, all at once, just like Sense8. The problem is that when you tell so many stories at the same time, it’s difficult to give any of them the screen time they need to be told the right way. Sense8 and Game Of Thrones are both trying to reinvent TV storytelling, and are doing so at the expense of the individual stories they want to tell.
Okay, I know that’s a lot. Let’s unpack it. We’ll start with Game Of Thrones, because I’m assuming that’s the one people have actually watched.
The Season Five Finale of Game Of Thrones touched on, by my count, 8 storylines, though an argument could easily be made for 9 or 10. (Daenerys getting lost with her Dragon, Jon/Sam At The Wall, Sansa/Reek escaping from Winterfell, Stannis’ failed attack on Winterfell, Tyrian and the rest of Daenerys’ advisors forming a rescue team, Arya and The Many Faced God, Cersei being shamed at King’s Landing, and Jamie and his daughter on the boat). The natural response is to say, “Well, that’s just how Game Of Thrones works” and for the better part of the last few seasons, that would be right. But, if you look back at the first episode of Game Of Thrones, the show wasn’t nearly as complex. Throne’s pilot told just 2 stories (The Lannisters and King Baratheon’s visit with the Starks at Winterfell, and Daenerys being sold to Khal Drogo). The show wasn’t always as complex as it is now, it started small and then naturally grew into something bigger.
Sense8 does almost the exact opposite. The first episode of Sense8 is absolutely massive, introducing viewers to 8 distinct storylines, almost none of which have anything to do with each other at this point. But, as the show goes on, all of these stories begin to intersect, and when they come together the show is a little easier to understand (Admittedly, you never fully understand what’s going on, but that’s part of Sense8‘s strange charm). Sense8 gets more intimate as the season progresses, and the show is better for it. Unfortunately, it takes multiple episodes for audiences to fully grasp who Sense8‘s characters are, and a few more episodes for you to get truly invested in them, and the average viewer might not have the patience to stick around long enough to get to that point.
The struggle to retain the audience’s attention is a huge reason why the absence of a singular, clear plot line can hurt a show, especially in the short term. Viewers don’t tend to respond well to stories that don’t have distinct beginnings, middles, and ends. That’s why stories have been told that way ever since stories existed. While character’s journeys almost always have a payoff in the long run, how do you get a viewer to stick around long enough to see it? Shows like Game of Thrones and Sense8 don’t have enough time to give each individual storyline a satisfying arc in every episode. In fact, they oftentimes don’t have time to visit some locations more than once during each episode (Thrones does this consistently). To solve this problem, the writers attempt to trick viewers into thinking that they just watched a complete story, even though they probably didn’t.
They trick us gullible viewers by distracting us with huge, dramatic, game-changing moments that send us into states of shock, sadness or sheer joy. Scenes and events that have our jaws on the ground and our fingers tweeting like there’s no tomorrow. Our ADHD minds forget all about what came before, all we care about now is that awesome, shiny, crazy twist that came from absolutely nowhere.
Game Of Thrones has been perfecting this concept since the beginning. The show oftentimes builds it’s storylines towards shocking moments rather than building them towards character development or towards a satisfying conclusion. These twists are the moments that define episodes, that’s why everyone is talking about is [Redacted]’s apparent death instead of the countless other exciting things that went down during the Season 5 finale.
Season 5 started out slow, mostly because Thrones was building up plot lines in order to pull off moments they knew everyone would be talking about; repositioning the pieces on the metaphorical TV chess board: Jon Snow had to be elected as leader of The Night’s Watch and decide to save the Wildlings in order to set up that incredible battle at Hardhome. Similarly, Tyrian had to spend a whole season getting to Daenerys in order to set up the dragon infused ending to episode 9. Neither of those set pieces told a distinct end to the story that was being set up, but instead were entertaining, awe inspiring, unforeseen twists that made us forget everything that came before, and more importantly, forget how boring those storylines actually were up until that point. These moments elevate Game Of Thrones from being 10 episodes of well acted, beautifully shot, exposition to a shocking show that has taken the pop culture world by storm.
But what happens when the show isn’t executed with as much care as Game Of Thrones? Well, just take a quick look at Sense8.
Sense8 would love to be as well-produced as Game Of Thrones, but unfortunately for the NETFLIX original, it isn’t anywhere close. The dialogue is oftentimes laughably cliche, the actors are pretty universally mediocre, and the show never really gets the pacing right either. (I’m not even mentioning how much of the first season I spent wondering what the hell was even going on.) But what Sense8 does have are moments of sheer brilliance, moments that make you remember the these are the people that pulled off The Matrix. In these scenes, everything comes together and you see a glimpse at what Sense8 could be, and that’s what kept me watching through to the end. When Sense8 is firing on all cylinders, it’s like nothing else on TV (The finale, in particular, is astonishingly good). But when it doesn’t, the show is frustratingly nondescript.
Sense8’s distracting moments don’t come from the shocking twists or the untimely deaths (Though both occur) but from emotional highs and from payoff of longstanding confusion (“OHHH! So that’s what that means! Awesome!). You look past minutes 0 through 55, and how profoundly mediocre they are, because of how much you enjoyed the final 5. In other words, when NETFLIX gives you 15 seconds to decide if you want to start the next episode, you make the decision based on that last moment that you loved, instead of the moments that you most certainly did not.
Not many shows attempt to tell upwards of 7 separate stories at once, but both Game of Thrones and Sense8 do so pretty admirably. Unfortunately, these storylines are never as strong as they probably could’ve been if given the time to breathe. Let’s take Arya Stark for example: Because her story never featured the explosive twists or the jaw dropping action that some of the others did this season, she was completely overshadowed during Season 5, despite being, in my humble opinion, the show’s best character during Season 4. We know she has the ability to carry an outstanding story, and her transition into a many-faced assassin definitely has potential, and yet when people talk about Season 5 Arya is hardly mentioned. The show just never developed her story to it’s full potential. Game Of Thrones and Sense8 are juggling so many different stories at once, dropping the ball on one or two of them doesn’t kill the entire show. So if, completely hypothetically, Game Of Thrones alienated viewers by having Stannis burn his daughter alive because some crazy chick told him to, people wouldn’t stop watching because they are extremely invested in so many other stories in the show, no matter how upset they were over the whole ordeal. Just as Sense8 can have multiple storylines that go absolutely nowhere for 5 or 6 episodes, but it doesn’t completely derail the whole show. That’s the advantage of having so many parallel plots.
Well, if you want to look at the big picture, it doesn’t matter that much. The globe will continue to spin on no matter what the future of TV storytelling looks like. But on a smaller scale, this has huge implications. Game Of Thrones is redefining what it means to tell a story on TV. It’s changing the definition because Game Of Thrones isn’t concerned with telling a singular story, it’s concerned with telling 8 of them. The same goes for Sense8 as well.
Think about it this way: Game Of Thrones and Sense8 are trying to create cinematic universes (Like The Avengers), but instead of making separate movies, they tell each film’s story all together, concurrently, in just a single season of television, and attempt to keep viewers entertained the whole time. This shouldn’t work, on paper the whole thing just seems impossible to pull off. But when it hits, like it does on Thrones or as it does a little more infrequently Sense8, there’s really nothing quite like it. It’s genuinely mesmerizing entertainment.
Game Of Thrones and Sense8 are the leaders in the new trend in TV. They tell stories in a way that audiences really haven’t ever seen before, well at least that we haven’t seen executed at this well before (Sorry, Heroes). Individually, these stories might not be as strong as they could be, but what Game Of Thrones and Sense8 prove is that audiences really don’t seem to care.
All 5 Seasons of Game Of Thrones are currently available to stream on HBOGo.
Sense8’s 12 episode inaugural season is now streaming on NETFLIX.
Thanks For Reading! If you want more pop culture content from yours truly, be sure to check out these pieces I wrote for the good people over at Fanlala:
(Be warned, Fanlala is geared towards a younger audience, so the tone is quote different than it is here at Me+TV)