So I just finished watching the entire season of the newest Netflix show Sense8, created by J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5, which I never watched) and the Wachowskis (of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, of which I have many mixed feelings), and I can’t decide whether I just watched 12 episodes of WTF or pure genius.
I’ll be as absolutely spoiler free as possible, though to be honest, I’m still not sure I even really know what was going on.
The basic premise is that 8 strangers from all over the world begin to see and feel and know things about the others. The first episode begins with a woman committing suicide and jumpstarting the entire thing. Funny side note: as I was watching that first episode and the woman killed herself, I was like, “Who’s the second rate Darryl Hannah?” Yeah…turns out it was actually Darryl Hannah. Anyway, throughout the first season, they begin to learn who and what they are, and are chased by a shadowy conspiracy corporation. And that’s the best summary I can give you.
There are really two distinct parts to this show: Characters and Plot. The plot itself is pretty thin. It lacks the twisty rabbit hole plot of LOST, which actually works in its favor. Though it took me about four or five episodes to actually begin to understand what the plot was, I was slightly let down when I figured it out. But, honestly, the plot isn’t all that important because Sense8 is really about the characters.
The easiest way for me to describe it is as 8 separate shows. You’ve got Lito, a closeted Mexican actor whose sections feel like a telenovela; Sun, a severe
Chinese Korean (sorry for the mistake!) business woman who also street fights on the side, whose sections feel like a family drama/mystery; Capheus, an African van driver who idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose sections are actually kind of like a Van Damme movie; Nomi, a transgender hacker whose sections feel like a conspiracy thriller; Kala, an Indian scientist about to marry the wrong man, whose sections feel like a rom-com; Riley a punk-rock DJ with a tragic past whose sections kind of feel like a Lifetime Movie; Wolfgang, a German thief whose sections feel like a noir/heist movie; and Will, a cop from Chicago whose sections feel like a buddy cop movie.
And it’s not just the characters that make each of their stories feel different. The way they’re filmed, the dialogue, the lighting. I don’t think any of this is chance. I think they’re meant to feel that way. For the most part, the first few episodes barely break each character out of their stereotypes. The most well-rounded character in the beginning is Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita. Nomi’s story is also the one most closely related to the plot.
But as the show progresses, the characters begin to merge and interact, and that’s when the characters deepen. They become the most compelling aspect of the show. I came for the freaky sci-fi but stayed for the kick-ass characters. Some end up more well developed than others. Nomi, Lito, Sun, and Wolfgang felt to me like they had the most depth, but each character got moments to shine.
The thing about the show is that it requires patience. This isn’t a show you just watch and forget about. It demands your attention. It demands that you think about it. As per usual, the Wachowskis aren’t shy about bringing in spirituality and love and big ideas, and while those don’t always pan out, the show works best when all the characters begin to merge and mesh together. Sure, the show sometimes veers into utter absurdity, but for the patient, there are also moments of brilliant transcendence.
By the end of the 12th episode, I wondered whether Sense8 would find a wide audience. I suspect that those who love it will Love it, while those who hate it will really hate the shit out of it. For me, Sense8 proved that you can run a thin plot so long as you give me characters to really care about, and in that Sense8 was a success for me. I can’t wait to find out if it gets another season.
- Now that’s how you do diversity. They didn’t just pay lip service to the various cultures, they really tried to get it right. Gender, sexuality, religion, race. So many diverse groups represented in this show. It was wonderful.
- A transgender character played by a transgender actress. Thank fucking God.
- Visuals and action: both were stunning. The Wachowskis really know how to film a kick-ass action scene.
- Women with agency (HBO could learn a thing or two from this show).
- Nudity. I don’t really care for nudity one way or another, but Sense8 didn’t shy away from female or male nudity, and often used female nudity in a non-titillating way, which was refreshing (there’s nothing sexy about watching a baby crown).
- Sex. The first sex scene we get is of Martha Jones (okay, Amanita) fucking her transgender girlfriend with a rainbow strap on. You won’t see that on network TV. And gay sex. Two men actually having loving, intense sex. Also, there was a literal clusterfuck. You’ll know what I mean when you get to the episode.
- The music. A group sing-along to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” was one of those transcendent moments I was talking about earlier.
- Dialogue. SO CHEESY sometimes. Honestly, some of the best moments on the show were when the characters just took some time out to talk to each other, to share memories and fears, but (especially in the early episodes) some of the exposition-heavy dialogue is just beat-you-over-the-head bad.
- The nudity. Yeah, there was a lot of dick, and I never want to see a baby being born again.
- Pacing. Like I said, you really need to be patient with the show, but I think it would have been better served if it was Sense6 rather than Sense8. With so many characters, it felt like they were stretching to introduce them all to us.
- The Villains. Ugh. So annoyingly stereotypical.
- The philosophizing. Really, it just felt like generic mumbo-jumbo like we get in all of the Wachowskis’ movies. More specificity would have been nice.
- The diversity, more accurately, the characters pointing out the diversity. I mean, we get that the cast is diverse, we can see it, we don’t need the characters to also point it out to us.
- The romances. They felt a little shoehorned in.
Overall, I’d say that this is an important show and one you should try. What it fails to achieve is as important as what it does achieve. It challenges the idea of what we think of as television. It’s like Straczynski and the Wachowskis took one look at the traditional TV rulebook, burned it and then pissed on the ashes. You have to binge-watch this show. It’s not even really a show, it’s practically a 12-hour movie. And while some people might not be down with that, I think it has the potential to change the way we look at television. Yeah, a lot of what they did was cliche, but so much more was groundbreaking in really exciting ways. I’m not sure I completely loved the show, but I love the risks it took, I love what it’s about, and I definitely want more.