A Christmas Special
Tina Desai as Kala, Max Riemelt as Wolfgang.
The yuletide season can bring out the worst in people. Sure, it’s a time of familial camaraderie, a chance to take stock and appreciate all the little things we normally take for granted, but there’s also something insidiously prefabricated about the way we’re expected to celebrate. Consume and be merry! Why aren’t you happy? It’s Christmas!
You’d think that the makers of Sense8, a compulsively watchable, hippy-dippy, sci-fi show about a psychically bonded group of superhumans, would understand the particular emotional tension. Sadly, Sense8: A Christmas Special is not that thoughtful. The one-off installment is a weak attempt to tie up loose ends from season one’s explosive finale, while the holiday cheer that does find our favorite sensates is too flimsy and insubstantial. These characters simply don’t earn their happiness, a fact that’s disturbing, given how much Sense8 defines them by their knack for optimism in the face of mounting persecution.
Even the most jubilant scenes in this special — a frenzied orgy and an equally feverish rave — feel uninspired. They forcefully broadcast excitement, but don’t convincingly elicit it because the filmmaking isn’t inventive enough. Of these two scenes, the orgy fares better: At least it shows us a fetishized vision of interchangeable body parts, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since Brian Yuzna’s conversely icky 1989 horror satire, Society. By comparison, the party feels unfocused and generic, like a commercial for a telecom company that wants you to think its customers are bursting with youthful joie de vivre.
Still, as Hernando says, perception is in the eye of the beholder: If you think the holidays bring out the worst in people, then you want them to bring out the worst in people. This kind of bullish, crunchy-granola magical thinking is the reason why I watch Sense8, so it’s all the more frustrating that the most convincing scenes in this special are the ones where characters must confront the dire consequences of their actions.
Picking up right where the season finale left off, we find our heroes confronting woeful tidings:
- Riley and Will are both using heroin. Additionally, Whispers torments Will by showing him how distraught his father has become in light of his sudden, inexplicable flight to Iceland. Also: Will is haunted by Angelica, who keeps pushing him to kill himself.
- Lito’s handlers want him to reconsider coming out of the closet, but he refuses. His possessions are subsequently repossessed and he is locked out of his apartment.
- Amanita and Nomi are dogged by Agent Bendix, and forced to flee their latest safe house.
- Depressed about being rejected by Kala, Wolfgang rebels against his aunt and forges an alliance with a foppish, Brian Eno meets Cruella de Vil crime boss named Volker.
- Capheus and Jela’s Van Damn bus blows up.
- Sun is still in solitary confinement after attacking her brother’s hired goons.
- Kala is intimidated at the thought of having sex with fiance Rajan.
None of these conflicts have decisive resolutions, a fact that’s refreshing unto itself. Sometimes life throws major problems at you, and you just have to live through them. However, the show’s characteristically free-floating narrative can fall short when none of the major problems are resolved in meaningful ways. There are moments of exultation along the way, and nothing major really sticks to any character. Will gets slammed the hardest, but even he perseveres without cracking.
It’s all just too questionable. Why doesn’t Riley seem to have any pressing problems? Is Capheus’s instantly solved dilemma — surprise, there’s a new bus! — all they could think to do with him? What is Lito going to do now that he’s effectively nuked his career? Won’t Bendix just endanger Amanita and Nomi no matter where they stay? Is Wolfgang really so comfortably numb that he won’t help his relatives when Volker comes for them? Where’s the wrap-up to his frustrated romance with Kala? Why can’t anyone else see Angelica? And why does she disappear?
As these nitpicky questions suggest, the tonal hiccups and inconsistencies of A Christmas Special undermine the good vibrations that Wachowski and Straczynski want to put out. The scene where Lito proves his usefulness by buying time for Sun is a glaring example. There’s no build-up to this character-driven moment, so Lito’s improvised, flop-sweat-heavy protestations feel like they come out of nowhere. It’s also the lamest example of how the sensate characters each contribute their special skills to each other’s lives. Lito helps Sun by … acting for her? Really?
There’s also a lot of wonky ideas about consent, objectification, and forgiveness that belie a general lack of sensitivity. Why should Rajan be forgiven when he betrays Kala’s trust and tells others about their nonexistent sex life? Why is it okay for Nomi and Amanita to drool over Lito and Miguel’s sex tape, just because they want the world to like their friends too?
Hell, why is it okay for Nomi to subscribe to an Unsolved Mysteries–level conspiracy theory about a 9/11 survivor who left the Twin Towers because of “a vivid physical presence?” And what kind of neoliberal, self-loathing claptrap allows Amanita to casually float the idea of urbanites living in a “bubble”? This special fails to foster real holiday cheer because it never feels genuinely warm, just more enlightened than thou.
Missed Psychic Connections:
- Did you catch Lana Wachowski’s cameo? She’s the one with the pink hair, walking away from Wolfgang and Felix after they let off some fireworks and yell, “Happy New Year!”
- When the waitress at Wolfgang’s club motions him to a nearby table, and we see who’s there, I thought, “Is that the cast’s stunt doubles?”
- The scene where Lito gets sized up by his managerial team is depressingly broad. Dialogue like, “The audience is not legally entitled to truth,” and “You’re an actor, you get paid to live lies” is borderline cartoonish, but not nearly as funny.
- Rodrigo: “Art is love made public.” This is the show at its most crunchy granola. I wish I could say that were a compliment.
- If you ever participate or host an orgy, please play it safe by putting on some Prince or Sade, not Jetta’s “I’d Love to Change the World.” Your lovers will thank you.
- A groan-worthy moment: When Agent Bendix rolls his eyes after describing Amanita as Nomi’s “girlfriend.” Bigots gonna bigot, but that is just ridiculous.