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Cheese and Grimdark, or Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

So Sense8 was cancelled.

That sucks a lot. I suppose I can talk about how much that sucks, or comment on the rather poor optics of cancelling it right at the beginning of Pride month, but there’s not much to say beyond that. It was clearly a crazy expensive show, with lots of shooting on location and action sequences, so there’s not really much to explain-explain about its cancellation. Other than that it sucks—because it really, really does.

No, what piqued my analysis-ish interest was a conversation I had with a gym buddy after I came in recently and shared my bummed outness about this news. He rolled his eyes and said, “I’m not surprised. That show had so much potential, but they wasted it.”

Like most people whose favourite show is criticized, this hurt my feelings something terrible. I was in a vulnerable place, so I pressed him for more details. What did he think this potential was? How did they waste it exactly? What would not wasting it mean?

“It was alright at first, but then it got so cheesey.”

Oh. Cheesey. Okay.

“Cheesey” means overly emotional and sentimental, and perhaps, overly optimistic in a way that feels naive and unrealistic. Cheesey things make us roll our eyes because we, certified cynical adults that we are, know that the world isn’t so nice.

I kind of knew what my acquaintance meant. For all that Sense8 has people being turned into zombies by having their brains vivisectioned, they are also more than a few monologues set against Emotionally Important Music™ about how how we’re all connected, or the true nature of family, or about how racism or transphobia is bad. This messaging isn’t always subtle, and sometimes it feels rather like it’s explicitly saying what the story is already showing. That can get a little annoying.

So I would have been fine with the conversation as being simply over a matter of taste, but I need to know, so I kept pressing him by asking what shows he thinks are not cheesy then. You get exactly one guess as to which show was the first mentioned.

I guess Game of Thrones isn’t cheesy? I didn’t ask for details here—because I learned a long time ago to never talk about GoT in front of the Muggles—but the group we were with started talking about how dramatically satisfying the twists were so…

When I think about the differences between these two works, Sense8 on the one hand and Game of Thrones on the other, my first thought is one of tone. (No, that’s a lie, my first thought is that Sense8 clearly puts emphasis on crafting an intricate script and giving actors opportunities to shape the characters and their stories, while the other is all about some of the best actors in the world playing out a farce while wearing increasingly ridiculous costumes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

Sense8 is about a group of eight people who have such extreme empathy for each other that they share a mind. The plot is about them helping each other to survive and find answers about themselves and protect those they love. There are terrible people in their lives, the world can be a hostile place to them, but for every time one of them is rejected, there are two or three where they find love or acceptance. Strangers help them, just out of the goodness of their hearts, at least as often as they hurt them. There is no doubt that the protagonists are made stronger by helping a being help.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but the contrast with GoT couldn’t be starker here. Its tone can be summarized as “everything sucks and you should feel bad.” This issues has been discussed at length elsewhere on this site, but in general, good things only ever happen to people on GoT to make us feel worse when the next horrible thing happens. The overwrought monologues aren’t about how “we are me,” they’re about how nothing is nothing, or beetles, or shoes. (So deep.) But the question is, what about these difference makes my acquaintance think that GoT is somehow less cheesy, and more “adult” than Sense8?

It can’t be the trapping of “deepness,” because I promise you Sense8 has just as much “Guess What the Writers Took First Year Philosophy”, and I don’t think it’s just the shocks and gore; Sense8 had that too. It also has way more penis shots than GoT. Maybe even more boobies.

Other shows are called “cheesey” too. When I wrote a recommendation for Call the Midwife, I believe I said it was as cheesy as “a piece of cheddar dipped in fondue and rolled in parm crumble.” It’s also a show that has long overwrought monologues about how everyone should love each other and work together. There’s systemic poverty and marital rape, but there are also nuns and babies and flowers! It’s also a show very obviously intended for a female audience, in a way that GoT certainly isn’t, and Sense8 doesn’t seem to particularly be, even if it’s clearly meant for us touchy-feely liberals. (Though I sometimes suspect that “targeted towards women” is very similar to “not specifically targeted towards straight men between 18 and 35”, and that certainly does apply to Sense8.) Outlander is another show that is derided as “cheesey” and “for chicks” and it has just as much boobs and gore as GoT does. The difference might be it’s focus on a romantic relationship and a female protagonist. And a super unnecessary voice-over. (Seriously, if I can change one detail of one show on TV right now, it would be getting rid of the stupid Claire voice over.)

It’s tempting to play the sexism card here, and maybe I can; GoT is sexist in so, so many ways, most of them quite subtle, but I don’t think any conscious rejection of the male-gaze—one thing these shows perhaps do have in common—is enough to qualify a show as cheesey. Though perhaps it is necessary. Necessary, but not sufficient, as they say.

Sex, after all, is often seen as a shibboleth of maturity in television. The same way swearing is. However, there’s a very big difference in the way sex and nudity, especially female nudity, is used in different television shows. GoT is rather notorious for “sexposition”: using nudity as a way to add visual interest to a scene of boring dialogue, or as an end in itself. The bodies displayed as almost always conventionally attractive out of verse, and I haven’t done the math, but I’m quite sure a majority have been portraying sex workers or slaves.

Sense8 had its moments “seriously,” like Sun engaging in a motorcycle chase scene in a bra and metallic hotpants, but it was also most likely to use nudity in non-sexual contexts, and to have (quite explicit) sex scenes that were contextualized by relationships that were developed in the actual story. So, in this case, it’s more adult, while GoT’s less thoughtful use of naked bodies, is really more adolescent.

No, the answer is quite clear. GoT is taken more seriously by audiences than Sense8, (or Call the Midwife, or Outlander,) in our present cultural and intellectual climate because “everything sucks and you should feel bad” seems like what a reasonable, mature adult would believe. Any narrative that emphasises love—romantic, platonic, or familial—or glorifies cooperation and empathy over violence and toxic masculinity, is seen as immature because it doesn’t have a “grown-up view” of how the world works. That kind of stuff is for children who still believe in fairies and happy endings.

And that might be even more depressing than the fact that my favourite show just got cancelled. (That really sucks, by the way.)


Images courtesy of Netflix and HBO

Julia
Written By

Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

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