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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Infin8 Stream: Is Sense8 The Future Of TV?

We live in an era defined by the Epic Streaming Show and Netflix. But is the Netflix hit Sense8 the precursor to an even stranger and more brilliant kind of hypermedia storytelling still to come?

For ages now I've wanted to write about Sense8 as a hypertext and some of the limits of its formal exploration, and as the second season hit the web a few weeks ago it seems like a good time to start picking at some of these ideas (if only because I'm tits deep in Weird Theory and need to take a break from reading Derrida).

Don't run away at the sight of the word "hypertext"! I swear the goal here is to work toward a point where we can talk about sensate orgies, though it's gonna take some time to get there. In the meantime, "hypertext" is a pretty simple term--it's right there in HTTP, after all, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, and all it means is that it's text no longer constrained by linear paths. So, Sense8 isn't so much hypertext as it is hypermedia, I suppose... media that consists of those nonlinear links between pieces of information.

In fact, it honestly might not even be that. After all, Sense8's still a linear story in its apparent form. There's no navigatable links from place to place within the narrative. It's not a show that functions as a web page, it's just a TV show, that happens to be online. Right?

The thing for me, though, is that I think it COULD become a hypermedia object, and maybe more than any other Streaming Show it seems to tap into the potential for that kind of structure. It might not be hypervideo, but it might, more than anything else besides the obvious, show the deep potential of hypervideo.

For orgies.

And also other things! Like the narrative, for example, which follows eight different people who, in season 1, discovered that they share a telepathic connection that lets them "visit" each other, sharing their experiences and trading control of their bodies. The burgeoning awakening of these "sensates" (get it?) is rudely interrupted by the intrusion of the sinister Biological Preservation Organization and its evil sensate assassin Whispers. The team has to draw their different skills from different lives spread all over the world to resist BPO's attempts to capture and perform nightmarish experiments on them.

So on the level just of premise we have a narrative that is already deeply hypertextual. Eight parallel stories that coincide occasionally but also exist in their own right as characters like Korean businesswoman and martial artist (of course) Sun contends with a murderous white collar criminal brother, or Capheus, a bus driver in Nairobi, struggles to pay for his mother's medicine. The somewhat arbitrary coincidence of these narratives already suggests a narrative structure best served by some measure of freedom in the way the audience navigates it.

It also, by virtue of the fact that the core sensate family includes a trans lesbian and a gay action movie star, enables a lot of queer sex, which is also best served by a measure of freedom that allows the viewer to jump straight to those scenes if they want to. That's probably a big part of why people keep coming back to Sense8.

But folks also probably come to Sense8 to an extent because, well, sense8 is a streaming show and as Mike Rugnetta argues persuasively, the Streaming Show is the archetypal storytelling medium of our age.

Mike's argument is that what we see on Netflix and other streaming sites is a media type that characteristically describes and stems from core facets of our modern existence. He compares it to periods where opera is incredibly important, or The Novel, or Chamber Music. His deep example is the Penny Dreadful in 19th century England and the way that rapid printing, a hungry public, and authors paid by the word resulted in multi-part serial narratives widely read, consumed, and condemned.

He posits that the streaming show, or the epic streaming show, where complex overarching narratives are composed of serial parts or episodes, is our equivalent of the Penny Dreadful. The specific technological affordances and cultural experiences we're going through In The West or maybe In The Anglosphere have led to the popularity of tv shows that "stream"--that can be watched on demand, binge watched rapidly or consumed piecemeal in scene chunks, and processed sort of like 14 hour long movies. The release of episodes en masse on netflix encourages people to watch every chance they get, consuming the shows as rapidly as possible. (I watched this season of Sense8 in about 3 days I think.) And as much as spoiler culture is kind of bullshit, spoiler culture further encourages people to consume the streaming series rapidly so as to not have the experience "spoiled" by foreknowledge. Which, again, is kind of bullshit, that's not really how art works, but spoiler culture, like gender, can still have material impacts on people's behavior even if it's kinda bogus.

(Oh by the way this article will, in fact, contain spoilers. People still periodically send me angry messages about this sort of thing. I don't know why they assume I'd be able to say anything interesting at all about a thing without talking about its contents but thaaat's spoiler culture!)

Sense8 is kind of the ultimate example of the streaming series in a lot of ways, and, more interesting to me, I think it can help understand how the epic streaming series leads naturally into hypervideo, at least potentially. Now, I'm not such a huge tv watcher that I can say definitively that Sense8 is exceptional, that other shows aren't currently doing similar things. Nevertheless, of what I have seen, Sense8 helps express why we would want tv to be hyper--what the central attractions are of hypernarrative. (And it really is a nascent thing. With the head start hypercomics have, given the technological limitations on video streaming, it's no surprise that hypercomics seem to be much more advanced than hypervideo, but it's also very tangible just how far behind hypervideo is.)

Part of the key is the connection Mike notes between the epic streaming show and epics properly: a series of episodes that are composed into a wider, complicated narrative. With the addition of nonlinearity (or arbitrary linearity) we get something more like a series of myths that are being packaged together as one unit despite being a distributed set of traditions that can be pulled out in different contexts, that are always flying off in different directions. This kind of hypernarrative allows for a multiplicity of character positions that narratives centered upon one protagonist don't allow. The Ensemble Cast is a big feature of hypernarrative, potentially. This permits, too, a kind of innoculation against single perspectives. We can have a multiplicity of viewpoints that we get to see very directly. Granted, this can be limited by the fact of single authorship or auteurship (which I think we see repeatedly in some of the limitations of Sense8) but I don't think it needs to be limited this way, and we can see the beginning possibilities here.

While Mike points out the use of the Episode in the epic streaming show, I think there's also potential for a collapse of The Episode and its ordering of the narrative in time. Episodes have their use--they certainly are useful in determining pay, as we saw in the last near-strike of the Writer's Guild, which was in large part due to the rise of shorter seasons of fewer episodes--but this use is mainly as a tool for demarcating the scope of a project, not necessarily as a way of slicing up narrative contents which can be experienced much more like a continuous film.

Here's where Sense8 gets really good.

Or well... look, I don't want to necessarily say that all of the wandering storytelling or arbitrary montage of various scenes in Sense8 is good writing per se but like I also want to kind of reclaim it as doing something interesting even within its sometimes arbitrary construction. We can look at this show less as a set of concrete episodes but as clusters of ideas we can pick up and put down as we see fit.

What we observe with this series is that adhering to the episode structure isn't particularly important. Every episode is titled by a quote from the episode itself, but (while it's entirely possible that I am a fool and not seeing the true underlying structural brilliance of each episode and its title) it always comes across as pretty arbitrary to me. The episodes seem much more like containers for ideas that tend to overflow the 50 minute segments freely if necessary. There's cliffhangers... but for an epic streaming show, isn't every scene a cliffhanger unto itself?

Meanwhile we're being encouraged to grab the show in bits and pieces, or all in one big gulp, and this allows for discrete thematic units within the show. In returning to the show to write this article I ended up watching a segment that crossed over two episodes in order to make sure I was getting the full scope of one thematic cluster... and also because I was caught up in the experience of watching the story unfold. I think that it's possible that I might be missing the deep structure of each individual episode... but I also think that the nature of Netflix as a delivery medium and our culture surrounding streaming shows actually discourages the seeking of a single episode arc. The next episode starts playing automatically, after all, and I'd be hard pressed to tell you what scenes closed one episode and opened the next. The tech doesn't seem to want me to think of discrete episodes but as clusters of material within a whole or highlights.

The segment in question I rewatched was a set of scenes fairly close to one another dealing with a single idea being explored. The first scene is a lecture by a professor who posits the prehistoric existence of the telepathic hominid Homo Sensorium. As part of the lecture he talks about the evolutionary advantage of language: language facilitates lying in a way that telepathy would not. The implication of the lecture is that it is the ability to lie that allowed Homo Sapiens to dominate and, as the professor puts it, commit a brutal genocide against our fellow hominids.

Hacker-on-the-run Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita talk to him afterwards about Whispers (in one of his previous personas) and he gives them a pretty vague response. Afterwards, Amanita expresses frustration at the earlier mentioned Homo Sapiens advantage, as their interviewee "could be a forgetful professor, or he could be a very cunning lier." So this sets up an opposition between sensates and sapiens as having a different relationship to the truth.

Then, shortly after, we get a back and forth between former-cop-on-the-run Will and Whispers (who's in his head, for reasons) where Will attempts to prove to Whispers that he can identify the man's location by their surroundings when Will visits him--things like the sound of people's heels in the hallway outside the blank interview room where they sit, and the British power plug on the wall, give his location away. Whispers proceeds to walk over to the plug and pull it off the wall, revealing the whole room to be a fake. He then proceeds to analyze all the tells that give away the location of Will and his clustermate and lover Riley--the sound of Icelandic gulls, the type of cheese they have, the architecture of the church attic, and so on. In a panic, Riley gives Will a heroin dose to block out Whispers.

Riley then turns off the tape recording of seagull noises that's been playing the whole time Will's been awake, and goes to meet her dad, who's been bringing her food from Iceland. They're not, in case it's not clear, in Iceland. They're in Amsterdam, and they've been playing the exact same con on Whispers that he's apparently been playing on them.

So the show has set up a notion that there's a kind of ability to lie particular to sapiens and then had two sensates engage in a complex game of mutual manipulation and deceit. There's a lot we can do with this I think but what really strikes me as interesting is that rather than taking up a full episode this is a cluster of material all revolving around deception, resulting in, for me, a sense of a coherent unit within the material that's also smaller than what we'd properly call a thematic arc. It's more a kind of thematic cluster, and something capitalized on MUCH later when Will expertly manipulates Whispers' whole sense of reality.

Here's the really wild thing though. There's a scene in between Riley shutting off the tape recording of the gulls, and going to meet her father, that's totally unrelated to lying except in the stretchiest of terms, a scene with Sun in prison (early season 1 she takes the fall for her scumbag brother) talking with her fellow prisoners about what food they want to eat when they get out. It's a nice little scene but it doesn't really make much sense in montage with the other scenes, other than it needs, I guess, to go somewhere.

And that's kind of ok. I mean it's also kind of not, it comes across as a little bit jumbled I think, but I can also imagine taking the different discrete theme clusters and recomposing them into a contiguous sort of block.

We could see this as a kind of sloppiness and I don't think that's entirely unfair. There's not really the sense, as in Coen Brothers films for example, of these strange narrative cul-de-sacs being integral to the overall composition of the narrative. But I think that we could also look at this the way Sijia Li brilliantly suggests in the LA Review of Books: as, in fact, the experience of flicking through random shows on Netflix. She writes: "For most of the first season, the show cuts between its eight main characters, like a viewer always pausing something halfway through to check their phone, or to start watching something else." The experience is sometimes jumbled, as the Wachowskis still attempt to find their feet, and as the wild tonal and genre shifts of the show sometimes cause clashes, but isn't that part of the streaming experience?

Here, we're invited to recompose the idea of "deception" as a particular notional cluster that we follow, flipping through the show at ease with the power of the little preview window on Netflix's search bar (which is how I found the scenes again, incidentally) and draw our own parallels, and we can excise or include the odder montaged scenes as we see fit. All of the technology of the streaming show allows us to also treat it as a show viewed and reviewed in pieces, picking through the information we're provided the way Will and Whispers pick apart their surroundings. And that, to me, suggests a pretty interesting and powerful direction for storytelling to take in the near future.

I'm going to put my neck on the line here, actually, and do something I don't usually do. I'm going to predict that we're going to see more narratives like Sense8 as people experiment with the epic streaming tv show as form. We're going to see a greater hyperactivity to streaming shows.

I'm really hoping this is one of those predictions like "Homestuck is going to follow a Gnostic arc about escaping the constraints of its narrative world" and not "My Little Pony will revolutionize feminism."

That means, though, that I have to dig into just what these clusters let us do. There's major potential in Sense8 for fandom to intervene in the show, cut it apart, and put it back together in new combinations... and it's that possibility we'll be looking at in the next part of this new, ongoing series on Sense8 and its hypermedia possibilities.

If you want a preview of this upcoming material, you can view the drafts of the upcoming articles as I write them for just $1 on Patreon, and you can read my previous book on hypercomics, A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities, (and all my other books!) for just $5.

1 comment:

  1. Movies are the best way to see a story with the the so experienced actors nowadays
    i enjoy reading so many Noticias de Cine.


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