LGBT representation on TV…what showrunners can learn from Sense8’s J. Michael Straczynski and The Wachowski siblings

Having just finished Sense8 the first thing that came to my mind was YIPEE!!!! None of the queer characters died and they weren’t defined solely by either their sexual orientation or gender identity.

What JMS and the Wachowski siblings have done with this series is astounding in its scope, scale and message about humanity. Right from the beginning of episode one we are introduced to Nomi, a trans woman, and her girlfriend Amanita (who live in San Francisco). Not only are they a queer couple, Nomi is white and Amanita is Black and this is never commented on throughout the series.

Nomi does experience transphobia at the hand of her mother who insists on calling her by her birth name Michael and later to a lesser degree from an old friend Bug (who hasn’t seen her since she transitioned) who after being told that her name is Nomi still makes sexist jokes directed at her but makes up for it by giving Nomi and Amanita the tech gear they need. Bug shows another level of growth when he comes to their apartment in a later episode and slips and calls her Michael but corrects himself and calls her Nomi twice just to make sure that Nomi and Amanita know that he is accepting of Nomi’s gender identity.

Just over two thousand miles south of Nomi and Amanita we find Lito, a closeted gay telenova actor, and his boyfriend Hernando living in Mexico City. Now people may quibble that having a closeted gay man on a show is retrograde but we also need to remember that there are many closeted gay actors (more men than women) in Hollywood and elsewhere so this story is still relevant. Their story includes Daniela who is Lito’s beard but she isn’t a stereotype either. There is never any jealousy coming from Hernando and the three of them form an unlikely trio. What I love about their story is that by the end of the season Lito has decided that he doesn’t care what people think and will live his life openly.

The fact that all of these characters aren’t just defined by their orientation or identity is also a great development for LGBT representation. Too often LGBT characters are marginalized, used to service their straight counterparts and/or killed off. We’ve seen this happen time and time again on many shows both here in the United States and on TV shows from other countries. As far as killing off LGBT characters, just in the past five years we’ve seen this happen to lesbian and bi-women characters on Chicago Fire, Last Tango in Halifax, Los hombres de Paco from Spain, Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Boardwalk Empire, Lost Girl, Lip Service, American Horror Story: Asylum, Pretty Little Liars (which killed off two lesbians of color), Skins: Fire, Orange is the New Black, Tierra de Lobos from Spain, The Walking Dead, Under the Dome, The Killing (US), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Matador and Arrow. I haven’t been able to find a list of gay or bi-men or trans characters killed off of TV shows but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Also, this list doesn’t even count all the LGBT characters killed off of TV shows prior to 2010. With acceptance of LGBT people rising in all western countries this trope is unnecessary and so retro. This is why I appreciate the fact that JMS and the Wachowski’s didn’t fall into that trap with Sense8.

Every main character on Sense8 are fully fleshed out human beings with both personal and professional lives including both the LGBT characters and their straight counterparts. I especially liked the way that the show depicted not only Nomi and Lito but also Sun (the South Korean businesswoman who is also a star in the underground kickboxing world from Seoul), Kala (the Indian pharmacist who is also a devout Hindu from Mumbai) and Capheus (the Kenyan van driver who also has a strong sense of justice from Nairobi). I did like Wolfgang’s (the German locksmith and safe-cracker from Berlin) arc but it didn’t move me the way that the characters mentioned above did. I also wasn’t as drawn to Will (the white cop from Chicago) and Riley’s (the white DJ from Reykjavik, Iceland by way of London) stories until about half-way through the season. I also was disappointed that Will was the one who saved Riley. I wish that one of those characters would’ve been a person of color but I guess you can’t have everything you want when watching a TV show.

Why Mad Men’s ending was both satisfying and frustrating…

Last night Mad Men ended its seventh and final season and for the most part I was satisfied with Matt Weiner’s vision for the show and each of the characters. As the seasons came and went, it became clear that viewers were supposed to be dropping into these characters lives across a decade’s (1960’s) worth of life and all that happened to them and around them. It was almost dreamlike in the way it was presented to the viewers since the real world only seeped into the characters lives at certain moments, not all the time. Knowing that I was happy, even though it would’ve been cool to have a flash forward to everyone in let’s say 1980, that Weiner showed each character carrying on with their lives at the close of 1970 which happens to be a few months before I was born.

For years viewers and critics have been ruminating about the opening credits and whether or not that was Don dying by suicide but ultimately that’s not what Weiner wanted to convey. The credits start with a man (Don) walking into a tastefully decorated early 1960’s office and over time that falls away until the man is seen falling from a building (with ads flashing on the side of the building) and then the man is sitting on a couch looking away from the audience. The credits perfectly encapsulates Don’s journey from the beginning of the show where, no matter the location of his office, everything is neat and tidy and then over the past year all of that is stripped away as the company that Don helped build is swallowed by McCann. Working at McCann was everything that Don wanted but also feared and in the end heĀ  felt the need to flee NYC and discard other material possessions as he traveled further away from NYC. It’s as if Don had to let go of everything to become the man he should be. We got hints of how he will be in the future with the Coke ad that played at the end of the show. The question remains…did he reconnect with his kids in any meaningful way or did he just figure out how to be a better ad man?

As for the women on the show including Sally. What a journey for all of them! It’s interesting to note that the three characters who got the most growth were Sally, Peggy and Joan. The way Sally stepped up after finding out about her mom’s lung cancer and eventual early death was a thing of beauty and one can’t heap enough praise on Kiernan Shipka for her nuanced portrayal of a young woman in an era where women had so much less agency. Remember Sally was born in 1954 so she would be 61 this year. Although I said upthread that I was OK with no flash forwards, the one I would’ve loved to see was Sally in 1980 as a 26 year old. Would she have become the typical 1980’s money hungry person or go against the grain? One can only ponder this since I doubt Weiner will ever let us know what he saw for Sally down the road.

Peggy’s arc was really satisfying. From a meek secretary to hopefully the creative director at McCann or another ad agency. She called her own shots and refused to play the games that Joan, who was born eight years before her, had to in order to get ahead. As syrupy sweet as her and Stan’s declaration’s of love were I loved it that she finally found a measure of professional and personal happiness at the ripe old (for the time) age of 31.

I love that Joan finally got to run her own company and call the shots in all aspects of her life in the finale. After spending years having to please the men in her life, both personally and professionally, she got the last laugh. When we leave her she is chugging along with Holloway-Harris productions proving that a woman can reinvent themselves no matter how old they are, even in 1970. Joan is 39 when we last see her handing Kevin off to her mom and starting her work day.

The same cannot be said for Betty’s arc but I think everyone watching knew that she wouldn’t grow as a human being so her early death was inevitable. She showed flashes of growth but it was limited by her vanity and sense of propriety which was the polar opposite of how Sally, Peggy and even Joan walked through life.

The only frustrating things about the ending of the show was the feeling that we didn’t get enough time with certain characters only to spend time with new characters that the audience, including myself, didn’t care about. One character that was missing entirely in the finale was Henry and it I would’ve loved to have seen Sally and Henry cooking dinner together.

Oh and Gene speaks LOL…so glad we got some words out of that kid finally.

I’m sure I will have more to say about this show. Stay tuned for a new post sometime down the line.