The opening credits of Sense8 (2015, streaming on Netflix) effectively convey what sort of show it is. Images from around the world set to calm music that slowly give way to more vibrant scenes of life and love as the music increases in intensity, betraying a hint of darkness. This is the planet Earth and the people who live there, it says as it revels in their beauty. The credits give no indication that Sense8 is a science fiction show, because it’s not concerned with the science fiction of it all: It’s using an SFnal concept for character-focused storytelling. What if you were psychically connected to seven other people around the world? What if you could share their thoughts, their emotions, their dreams? What if you could help each other?
Suddenly and violently, eight people become sensates, though it takes them some time to understand what has happened. Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith), white cop in Chicago. Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), gay Spanish actor in Mexico City. Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), white Icelandic DJ in London. Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt), German thief in Berlin. Capheus (Aml Ameen), Kenyan matatu driver in Nairobi. Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai), Indian pharmacist in Mumbai. Sun Bak (Doona Bae), Korean kickboxer in Seoul. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), white trans lesbian hacktivist in San Francisco. It’s rare to see character diversity of this level in television, let alone science fiction. Every one of these characters has a compelling story, and the cast is uniformly excellent. While some characters’ stories do fall into stereotypes—the Indian woman has arranged marriage angst, the Korean woman knows martial arts, the Kenyan man’s plot involves drug traffickers, and so on—the characters themselves are rich and complex. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the show uses these familiar templates to ease the audience into accepting something bold and new. On a personal level, I loved seeing India and Indian characters depicted so accurately on a Western show. I’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed Outsourced, but that show was clearly not filmed in India. Sense8 not only went to India, but consulted with locals to learn more about the culture and how marriages and weddings work (yes, we do sometimes burst into choreographed Bollywood routines, though they’re not nearly so polished and smooth).
Juggling eight protagonists is no easy task, and J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis struggle in the early episodes to give them all equal weight. At times, there are a couple of characters with no clear plot movement, which can be frustrating, since the overarching plot—a vast conspiracy involving sensates and also scientific hoo-hah that attempts to explain the concept—moves at such a glacial pace that the character stories must be interesting to keep you watching. But Sense8 is a show obviously designed for binge-watching, as it expects you to give it about four episodes right up front to hook you. Slowly but surely, it reveals itself to the characters and the audience as the sensating—like the music of the opening credits—builds in intensity. At first, it’s a simple bleed-through of sounds and images, but it’s when the sensates discover they can communicate with each other and, even better, cede control of their bodies that things really get popping. The first half of the season teaches the audience the visual language of sensating, how it depicts people from different countries conversing as if they’re in the same room or a Korean woman kicking the asses of Kenyan baddies while simultaneously beating up someone in the ring. The second half then weaves that mechanic into the fabric of the storytelling, recognizing that now these characters are never ever truly alone and can call on each other when necessary. Some of the most incredible scenes in the show occur when all eight sensates experience something together; the “What’s Up?” montage at the end of episode four (the moment I think would finally hook a new viewer) is my favorite weirdo sing-along since Magnolia. Episode six has the infamous That Scene, in which the sensates really do come together. There’s a moment at the end of episode ten that is transcendent, unlike anything I have ever seen on television. These strangers become closer than anyone could imagine, sharing their whole selves with each other, mind, body, and soul.
The sensating mechanic allows the show to tell a truly global story with character connections where you can have amazing action sequences involving multiple people who aren’t even physically there, but also have amazing intimate conversations involving multiple people who aren’t even physically there. Don’t get me wrong, I am here for every exciting car chase and explosion the Wachowskis put onscreen set to Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer’s thumping soundtrack, but Sense8 really shines in scenes like Lito and Nomi sitting in a museum bonding over their identity issues. Two people who have never met, never even spoken to each other except in their minds, find common ground in the ways they’ve had to hide who they were, and how hard it is to embrace that, to undo the violence they’ve done to themselves. Though the characters are separated by thousands of miles, the actors are physically together in each space—when Lito opens up, we see them in the museum, and when Nomi opens up, we see them in her home—and that rapport shows. And that chemistry, as shown in the budding romances that feel vaguely incestuous but also perfectly apt: If you can fall in love with someone after sharing their mind, that’s something.
Sense8 says that we are all connected, though our bond is not as strong as that of the sensates. We are all humans inside, but our differences are to be celebrated and embraced; they should bring us closer together rather than tear us apart. In a way, sensating is like an SF version of Will Graham’s hyperempathy, as it allows the characters to literally feel what others are feeling. Their pain, their joy, their heartbreak, their aggression, their arousal, everything. Sensating is also an SF metaphor for social media, which similarly connects people around the world by allowing them to broadcast their emotions and ask for advice, though unfortunately I can’t drive your car from another continent with my Twitter account.
Sense8 is not without its flaws, of course. Despite its impressively diverse cast, the story does seem to favor the white characters as the season progresses, and in a show this queer, it’s disappointing that the climax centers on a heterosexual romance. Is this another case of using a familiar, safe template to give the audience what it is used to as a Trojan horse for all the queer content? Even so, this is a show that starts out with two lesbians using a rainbow prosthetic cock; we can handle far more queerness by the end. And more attention paid to the characters of color. The show mostly forgets that Kala is a scientist who could be helping the sensates out with her science knowledge until the finale, and Capheus (whose actor is sadly being replaced), precious cinnamon roll though he is, feels the most sidelined. As I mentioned earlier, the slow pacing may turn some viewers off, as may the sometimes-clunky dialogue.
But I can overlook all of these flaws because I love these characters so much. In preparation for this review, I read recaps of all the episodes, and I teared up just thinking about the characters because I’d grown so attached them. I rewatched the finale and teared up at a scene of seven sensates appearing in one sensate’s time of distress because they had bonded that strongly. This show is a celebration of life and humanity as an interconnected beautiful experience where coming together to find commonality and connection makes us stronger, and it is what we need right now. We need more character-focused science fiction with this level of diversity that allows so many people to see themselves as superheroes, which is essentially what the sensates are. The first season is their origin story, and I’m so excited to see where they’ll go next.
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