Ever since they started out, the Wachowskis have been established as a highly accomplished duo, having made a name for themselves with incredible work like Bound and the Matrix trilogy. The prospect of them teaming up with acclaimed TV and comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski for a new show on Netflix was an exciting one to say the least. What we have with Sense8 is basically a transcendental action-adventure drama with elements of both sci-fi and romance thrown in for added measure. The story is about eight people living in different parts of the world who are all brought together after discovering special abilities. If you’re sensing déjà vu, then that’s because the setup is very similar to the premise of Heroes, and this show certainly has very a similar vibe and tone to what Heroes had in its first season before it went off the rails. There are, however, some differences; instead of gaining individual super powers, the characters here have the power to connect to each other, transmigrating into each other’s space, seeing, feeling, hearing what another one is experiencing. These eight individuals are referred to as “Sensates”.
The show has a great concept at its heart, and there’s huge potential in that concept, but sadly that concept is never properly explored to its full potential. It’s almost as if the Wachowskis and Straczynski have lost faith in that idea and opted instead to do different character storylines told in different world locations with varying tones and vibes to each one of them. That would be okay, except some are better than others. Some storylines can be basic and somewhat clichéd at times; an Indian woman who’s uncertain of marrying a man her parents adore; a troubled Chicago cop trying to do right in a harsh environment; and a German criminal with a heart of gold. The performances are incredibly solid and the actors do their best to give some of the less-interesting characters more depth and emotion, but they are still somewhat hindered by the occasionally clunky writing.
The strongest character with the strongest storyline and character development is Nomi, a transgender blogger and a reformed “hacktivist” living in San Francisco with her lesbian lover Amanita. Even though she’s part of a bigger universe with the other seven characters, her story arc involving her self-identification, her estrangement with her family and her relationship with Amanita is more deeply explored and more emotionally layered than the other storylines. It seems that Lana Wachowski, herself a trans-woman, had more of a deeper personal connection with Nomi, and Jamie Clayton (also transgender) gives an emotionally raw and captivating performance and her chemistry with Freema Agyeman is both believable and heartfelt. Speaking of which, you’ll see a completely different side to the former Doctor Who girl, so be warned Whovians: you won’t see her in the same way again.
Plus, the show deserves credit for its honest representation on LGBT, and it was massively refreshing seeing that both a lesbian couple and gay couple were being given the same (if not more) attention than any of the straight couples. Usually in mainstream media, a character’s sexuality ends up becoming their only characteristic, but like the Wachowskis demonstrated with the incredible Bound, Sense8 shows that this isn’t the case. With the freedom of Netflix, this show can get graphic with its displays of full-on sex and full-frontal nudity that is sure to make some viewers eyes burn, particularly in one hair-raising scene where several of the main characters use their ability to feel each other across the world in a sensual and psychedelic manner. As well as sexuality, gender and identity, the show also deals with other weighty topics of poverty, religion, racism, sexism, depression, suicide, police brutality and more. It’s almost as if the show’s creators were going through a huge checklist of the biggest crises of modern human history order to reflect and capture the zeitgeist of our times, and sometimes this works brilliantly, yet far too on the nose occasionally.
The binge-watching Netflix format has worked wonders for many of Netflix’s own shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and most recently Daredevil, all feeling like an extended movie rather than the typical TV season. Yet with Sense8, some episodes felt like 20 - 30 minutes of a movie stretched out to several hours, allowing for more setup and “Basil Exposition” dumps before the action happens, and this makes the series as a whole too much of a slow-burner, which doesn’t really work for a sci-fi series of this scale and it could’ve benefited from being faster-paced. When it does become that, the drama kicks in, the action becomes compelling, and the heavy dialogue scenes become more effective as a result.
Yet despite pacing issues, the show’s big sense of scale and scope is highly reflected in its visuals. Instead of copping out and going for any GCI visuals, the Wachowskis wanted to capture the realism of the world and filmed on location in Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Seoul, Reykjavík, Mexico City, Nairobi and Mumbai. It’s evident watching the series that they certainly got the most out of these staggering locations, and throughout the series there are some breath-taking visuals (all thanks to John Toll, Frank Griebe, Christian Almesberger and Danny Ruhlmann). Plus, the score by Tom Tykwer and Johnny Klimek is excellent and adds some much needed liveliness and edginess to the proceedings.
Sense8 has a great premise, imaginative ideas, great performances (plaudits to Ms. Clayton), and stunning visuals. But whilst that core concept could’ve been fleshed out more, it would seem that in this first series, it has been sacrificed somewhat for more in-depth character drama, which is strong for some yet isn’t for others despite how strong the performances are. The slow build-up and exposition layering slows down the drama and faster pacing is much needed to liven proceedings. However, its sprawling ambition is still incredibly admirable, and like the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, it may improve over multiple viewings. A second season wouldn’t be a bad thing, because that’ll hopefully allow for the ideas of the show to be explored in greater depth, now that we're familiar with the characters and their scenarios. A mixed bag overall, but an admirable one nonetheless.
INFO: SENSE8 / CERT: 18 / CREATOR: ANDY WACHOWSKI, LANA WACHOWSKI / SCREENPLAY: ANDY WACHOWSKI, LANA WACHOWSKI, J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI / STARRING: MIGUEL ANGEL SILVESTRE, DOONA BAE, JAMIE CLAYTON, TINA DESAI, BRIAN J. SMITH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW