You could probably run an interesting poll among genre fans to see which ones find the elevator-pitch description for Netflix's new show Sense8--a globe-spanning genre series from the minds of the Wachowski siblings and J. Michael Straczynski--an immediate selling point, and which ones see it as a reason to stay away. I have to admit that I'm in the latter group. The involvement of the Wachowskis, whose recent work has vacillated between glorious messes (Cloud Atlas) and tedious ones (Jupiter Ascending) was cause for some concern, if also no small amount of curiosity. But Straczynski, best-known for the formally innovative but cliché-ridden and self-satisfied Babylon 5, gave me some genuine pause. It was some time before I could bring myself to get past my expectation of long-winded speeches and juvenile cod-philosophy and give the show a try. I can't exactly say that Sense8 defied these lowered expectations. It is a mess, and it is cliché-ridden. But it's also not at all the sort of show I would have expected from Straczynski (whose input into the show's plot and central ideas is actually quite hard to discern) or even the Wachowskis (whose frequent preoccupations, for example from Cloud Atlas, appear here, but in very different ways than what I'm used to seeing from them). Sense8 isn't exactly a good show, but it is an interesting and unusual one, and in ways that make it extremely worth watching.
Sense8 focuses on eight characters: Will, a Chicago cop (Brian J. Smith); Nomi, a transgender blogger and hacktivist in San Francisco (Jamie Clayton); Lito, a closeted matinee idol in Mexico City (Miguel Ángel Silvestre); Capheus, a bus driver from a Nairobi slum (Aml Ameen); Sun, a Korean businesswoman who moonlights in Seoul's underground boxing scene (Doona Bae); Kala, a chemist from Mumbai (Tina Desai); Wolfgang, a German criminal (Max Riemelt); and Riley, an Icelandic DJ working in London (Tuppence Middleton). As the series opens, they begin to experience shared dreams and hallucinations, and to feel each other's emotions and physical sensations. A mysterious stranger called Jonas (Naveen Andrews) informs them that they are a "sensate cluster"--eight individuals who are part of a single self, an alternate form of humanity that has existed, hidden, for millennia. The discovery of their shared connection both interferes and aids in the various dramas going on in the characters' lives--Kala is conflicted about her upcoming marriage to a rich man whom she doesn't love; Capheus is desperate to get money with which to buy medicine for his HIV-positive mother; Sun is being pressured by her father and brother to take responsibility for the latter's embezzlement in order to save the family business. At the same time, the cluster's awakening draws the attention of a sinister figure known as Whispers (Terrence Mann), who, aided by the authorities, seeks to hunt them down and subject them to personality-destroying brain surgery.
While watching Sense8, I found myself comparing it to Orphan Black, another present-set technothriller about a group of disparate strangers who are forced to band together due to a quirk of their biology. The two shows share a slapdash approach to plotting, and a tendency to rely on broad stereotypes when drawing their main characters (of course Capheus's mother has HIV; of course Sun is a martial arts expert). They also share the choice to build their storytelling around a central gimmick. On Orphan Black, this is the fact that most of the show's characters are played by the same actress, who often performs opposite herself--an intimate device, whose success is measured by its failure to call attention to itself (how many times in the show's recently concluded season have I caught myself thinking "wow, Sarah really reminded me of Alison in that scene"?). Sense8, on the other hand, goes large. Its defining gimmick is the rapid intercutting between several vividly and beautifully shot locations (the show was filmed in Chicago, San Francisco, London, Reykjavik, Nairobi, Seoul, Mumbai, Berlin, and Mexico City, with different directors--including the Wachowskis and their Cloud Atlas collaborator Tom Tykwer--taking over directing duties in each location).
The logistics of this project were obviously enormously complex--because the connection between the characters allows them to appear to each other and even take over each other's bodies, the entire cast had to be present in each location, and many scenes had to be shot multiple times with different actors playing the lead each time. As it is on Orphan Black, however, the result is more than just an impressive technical accomplishment. The visual device at the heart of Sense8 helps to drive home the show's central theme of interconnectedness. Its shifting between multiple, gorgeous locations contributes to the epic feeling of the story (even as the story itself lags in validating such pretensions). Whatever else it is, Sense8 is never boring to watch.
It is perhaps for this reason that the weakness of Sense8's plot(s) doesn't really register. None of the individual characters' stories are particularly engrossing in themselves, and some are barely stories at all--Kala, for example, could call off her wedding in an instant; the only reason she doesn't is an increasingly inexplicable unwillingness to hurt her fiancé's feelings and disappoint her ecstatic but ultimately supportive family. Meanwhile, the thriller plot that surrounds Whispers's pursuit of the cluster is barely developed, even by the end of the first season's twelve hours. (One of the few Straczynski-esque touches to the show is that he has announced that he has a five-year plan for the story, with the final episode already mapped out, perhaps explaining the first season's slowness. This should also give prospective viewers pause, given how lukewarm the show's critical and commercial reception has been. Netflix might give Sense8 a second season, but there's no way it'll give it another four.) A season into the show, it's hard to say that very much has happened on it, for all its frenetic switching between storylines and repeated reaching for a sense of grandeur and portent.
And yet, Sense8 remains one of the most effortlessly watchable shows I've seen in a while, its twelve hours passing almost in a flash. (It's interesting, for example, to contrast the show with Daredevil, whose plot problems were comparatively negligible, but whose final episodes were nevertheless a slog in comparison.) The reason for this is clear--it's not just that if any one plotline bores you, another is sure to cut in, but that the characters from the different plotlines are constantly interfering with each other in unexpected and frequently amusing ways, involving, for example, Wolfgang's crime drama with Kala's domestic dilemma and Lito's identity crisis. And, of course, if none of those can hold your interests, there's always a gunfight, a dance number, a car chase, a karaoke performance, or several very explicit (but decidedly non-prurient) sex scenes to look forward to.
Again like Orphan Black, Sense8 pretends to be about issues of personhood and identity, but doesn't really have much to say about them. Just as it isn't actually believable that all of Tatiana Maslany's characters have exactly the same genetic potential, we never really buy that all of Sense8's leads are part of the same person. (This, incidentally, makes it easier to accept that four of the cluster's members--Wolfgang and Kala, and Will and Riley--become romantic couples, which we'd otherwise have to read as not much different from masturbation.) And just as Orphan Black uses an SFnal trope that it isn't really interested in to reflect on the issues that are at its heart--namely, female bodily autonomy and the way that it is often violated by scientific, government, and military interests--Sense8 uses the connection between its characters to reflect not on unity, but on empathy.
Being linked to one another doesn't mean that the cluster immediately knows everything about each other (in fact the season's only completed throughline involves getting to the bottom of the trauma that has left Riley so fragile and prone to self-harm). Rather, it gives them the opportunity to get to know one another, despite their different circumstances and the distances separating them. The best scenes in the series are the ones in which the characters simply sit and talk about their lives and histories, and through that talking, discover new things about themselves--when Nomi explains to Lito how she found the courage to be true to herself, or when Capheus helps Sun choose whether to sacrifice herself for her family. The sensate connection becomes a metaphor for the power of empathy, kindness, and open-mindedness to overcome barriers of language, nationality, and geography, and to allow people--some of whom are disadvantaged by gender, race, sexuality, or class--to help each other, pooling their strengths, skills, and advantages and becoming a more resilient whole. "I thought I was alone," Riley says to Sun, and this is clearly true of all the show's characters. But together, they find companionship and solace even in their darkest, loneliest moments.
The only problem with this message is that you don't really need to watch twelve hours of Sense8 to grasp it. That this is what the show is driving at is obvious already from its trailer, or a random gifset on tumblr. What the show amounts to, then, is a lot of embroidering around this theme, not all of which serves it well. It's one thing, for example, for Jonas to tell Will that ordinary humans' lack of connection makes them better killers, but when Capheus calls on Sun's help when one gangster is about to force him to kill another gangster, and she coolly slices her way through a dozen of the first gangster's henchmen, the show's messages can start to seem a little mixed. And though the show clearly has a commitment to issues of social justice, and particularly the positive representation of queer characters and relationships, it also has some odd blind spots--as when Will, a white man, saves the life of a black teenage criminal, only to have his partner, a nurse, and a retired cop, all of whom are people of color, express the belief that doing so was wrong because the boy might grow up to kill cops. Or the subplot in which Lito and his boyfriend Hernando's (Alfonso Herrera) life is invaded by Lito's unwitting beard Daniela (Eréndira Ibarra), who first sexually harasses Lito, and then, when she finds out about Hernando, immediately assumes that he and Lito are her new gay BFFs, exclaiming "I love gay porn!" and taking illicit pictures of them having sex, all of which is treated as cute rather than offensive and invasive.
Despite its forays into clichés and offensive tropes, one of the things that helps sell Sense8 as an exploration of interconnectedness and empathy is the breadth of its world. The show is set in eight different countries and cultures, and though obviously I can't say how true any of its depictions of those cultures are (and in fact I suspect, given how frequently it plumps for stereotypes, that these depictions are flawed at best), what does ring true is the sense of their difference from each other, and from what we're used to seeing on American TV. To watch Sense8 is to gain a greater appreciation for how narrow the cultural landscape that appears in most anglophone entertainment actually is--especially when those entertainments depict non-anglophone cultures. How many other shows, for example, would set a scene in the Diego Rivera museum, the better for their characters to explain to each other Rivera's Marxist sympathies, and how these were betrayed by subsequent generations looking to monetize his heritage? How many acknowledge the existence of streams of Christianity such as Russian Orthodoxy, Wolfgang's religion, or are capable of imagining an intersection of faith, secularism, and religious fanaticism that is completely different from how those forces interact in American culture, as Sense8 does in Kala's storyline?
There's certainly room to criticize Sense8--as others have already done--for fictionalizing its settings, and for often remaining trapped in a stereotypical, American perspective on them. But to me that criticism is incomplete. It ignores the fact that, alongside some obvious stereotypes, many scenes in Sense8 feature cultural touchstones that are obvious to the characters and to other people from their culture, but opaque to us. When we flash back to Lito's birth, we see his family crowded around the TV watching a soap opera. Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) attend a dance/spoken word performance about the ravages of the AIDS crisis. Wolfgang meets a buyer for his stolen diamonds in a maze of concrete columns. It's left to the observant or obsessive viewer to work out that these are, respectively, the finale of Cuna de Lobos, the most successful soap opera on Mexican TV, a real performance piece by Sean Dorsey, and the Berlin Holocaust memorial. Even a viewer who doesn't pick up on these details, however, will take away from Sense8 the message that not everyone's cultural landscape looks the way it does on American TV. That other historical events, religious observances, and cultural milestones might loom largest for people from other parts of the globe.
If you take a look at the current state of genre TV--almost all of which is dominated by superheroes or stories that don't veer very far from that template--a dispiriting picture begins to emerge. Thoughtless power fantasies abound. Stories that are supposedly about justice and protecting the weak only lightly conceal a might-is-right message. Agents of SHIELD took a premise that could have been used to reflect on the seductiveness of ungoverned, unaccountable power and the ease with which it is abused, and turned it into a ratification of the fascist worldview. The main character of the supposedly sunny and grimdark-free The Flash illegally imprisons the people he defeats without trial, legal recourse, or any hope of release, and his only comeuppance is to be praised for not killing them outright. In this climate, Sense8, for all its flaws, feels utterly essential. For a genre story to center empathy, compassion, and understanding, even in ways that are imperfect, is almost revolutionary. So while Sense8, as I've said, isn't exactly good TV, it's so different--and in ways that so sharply reveal the shortcomings of our current genre landscape--that I have no hesitation in recommending it. It's not surprising that the show hasn't enjoyed the critical and commercial success that Daredevil has, but, precisely because it acts as a counterpoint to so many of the Marvel show's thoughtless assumptions, I hope that it's granted a second season.