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Stronger Together

9 August, 2016 (17:43) | Goggle-eyes, Sense8 | By: Ian Burdon

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

I’ve been catching up with Supergirl. I didn’t watch it when it was broadcast (I avoid Sky) so I’m semi-binge watching it.

Possibly a surprise for me, I’ve been enjoying it. It does exactly what it says on the wrapper; the core actors are good and Melissa Benoist does a great job (and gets better through the season). Sure, it can be somewhat saccharine, but that’s OK.

And yet.

In my head I have been contrasting and comparing it with Sense8, because the differences are interesting.

Firstly, I find Supergirl surprisingly old-fashioned. It conforms precisely to a familiar template for US Network TV shows: each episode runs to around 42 minutes plus ads; there is quite a strong story arc through the season, but it still sticks to an episodic structure with a ‘monster of the week’ for our heroine to defeat. By contrast, season 1 of Sense8 was written with binge watching in mind. It is a complete story told in 12 parts. Although there is an episodic structure, it is not to the fore, and this fundamental structural difference informs many things, not just the narrative; it informs the acting, the direction, the choices of lenses and cameras, the framing, the colour palette and the sound design.

Secondly, although there is mention of Supergirl protecting the planet, and the bad guys often pose a planetary threat, ‘planetary’ too often is co-terminus with the boundaries of National City, where the show is set. Sense8 really does operate on a global scale. No doubt it has a more substantial budget, but, like Game of Thrones, you can see that budget on screen.

Thirdly, the writing. There is nothing wrong with the writing on Supergirl within its own parameters, and it nicely uses some familiar tropes to make strong points about family, loyalty, and morality. Yet a lot of the stories have an air of familiarity about them, echoes of other shows. Stargate was there; so was Star Trek. “Manhunter” reminded my of the ST:TNG episode ‘The Drumhead’; the headset in episode 19 and 20 looked distinctly like something designed by the Cybermen in Dr. Who.

Sense8 really doesn’t remind me much of anything else except previous work by the series’ creators; most obviously the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas.

I said at the top that the lead performers in Supergirl do a good job and Melissa Benoist is very good in the lead. There are times when some of the cast (except Calista Flockhart) reminded me of the Linda Gray school of facial emoting as exemplified on Dallas, but that’s par for the course. Sense8 operates in a different dramatic and narrative world. Both shows deal with love, loss and grief, but Sense8 is resolute in its commitment to ‘show, don’t tell’, whereas Supergirl has a habit of telling as well as showing just be certain you got the point.

Tuppence Middleton as Riley Blue

Tuppence Middleton as Riley Blue

Sense8 episode 9, which I really like, is available on line as well as on Netflix, and forms the example for my final thoughts. I’ve written before at length about the scene in the Diego Rivera Museum that begins at 21 minutes into the episode. It deals explicitly and in detail with themes that Supergirl (and, in fairness, most other mainstream shows), will not go anywhere near. More germane to my point, the long scene featuring Riley in the Icelandic graveyard (it begins at 35.59) is a masterclass in portraying profound grief, to which Aml Ameen and Chichi Seeii make pitch-perfect contributions from around 40.40.

Now: it would be wrong criticise Supergirl for not being something that it has never set out to be. Supergirl is no more Sense8 than Mary Poppins is an homage to Akira Kurosawa. And that’s fine, it takes all sorts to make a mix of entertainments. I enjoyed Supergirl season 1 and I’ll no doubt enjoy season 2 when it comes along.

But Sense8 seems to me to be an event which will be a reference point for future writers, directors and producers in the same way Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek were and are. Supergirl is entertaining and fun, but it isn’t a game-changer.