TELEVISION REVIEW: "Sense8"

A good friend of mine described her frustration with trying to like Netflix’s Sense8, created by the Wachowski siblings and J. Michael Straczynski, by saying something along these lines: “the dialogue seems more like it works with GIF collections and graphics rather than being something anyone would actually say.”

And to some degree, she’s right. So much of Sense8 seems directly aimed at those fandom bloggers with editing skills. Downright hilarious romantic lines, like “impossibility is only a kiss away from reality,” are evidence of this tendency. After all, Sense8 is available to binge-watch on Netflix, makes use of one of the most diverse casts in television, and contains extraordinarily sweeping and often beautiful visuals, with excellent, crafty editing fitting each piece of the show together—perfect to capture the attention spans—and hearts—of the Millennial generation, a group of television viewers more interested in unconventional shows like these.
(https://www.facebook.com/Sense8TV)

That line is also largely indicative of the kind of show Sense8 is—grandiose, dramatic, and more than a little cheesy. If that line makes you roll your eyes and turns you off completely, you won’t get much out of Sense8. A lot of being able to enjoy Sense8, as I did, requires patience and the ability to suspend disbelief, as well as the ability to find eight people randomly singing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” simultaneously as anything other than irredeemably sappy.

Also, there’s an orgy. Do I still have your attention?

If you’re capable of enjoying all that, however, there is plenty to love about Sense8. The story concerns eight individuals, living in locations scattered across the globe, who suddenly become psychically linked to one another after being haunted by a vision of a mysterious dead woman. As the show progresses, the Sensates (as they are called) learn about one another, experience sensations together, and use their power to assist one another—especially helpful since a sinister organization is tracking them down to lobotomize them, thus severing the connection.

The sensates live all across the globe, giving the showrunners the opportunity to tell different stories simultaneously, and leads to interesting cultural mingling as they come together and occupy one another’s bodies and minds.

In the United States, there’s Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman “hacktivist” living in San Francisco with her girlfriend. In Chicago, Will (Brian J. Smith) is a police officer with a paternal chip on his shoulder. In Mexico, Lito (Miguel Silvestre) is a soap opera star with a secret boyfriend. In London, Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is a DJ whose drug use and sweet demeanor hides a truly painful secret. In Berlin, Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is a locksmith-cum-safecracker with a penchant for violence. In Nairobi, Capheus (Aml Ameen) is a perpetually upbeat van driver with a sick mother who becomes wrapped up in a world of violence he wants to part of. In Mumbai, Kala (Tina Desai) is a pharmacist who struggles with a marriage she doesn’t want. In Seoul, Sun (Bae Doona) is a businesswoman whose cool demeanor masks her adroitness in nightly underground fighting rings. Appearing intermittently to offer guidance is Jonas (Naveen Andrews), a Sensate from the previous generation who is being hunted by the United States government.
(https://www.facebook.com/Sense8TV)

Some of these characters and their respective stories work better than others. The stories of Nomi and Riley (the hacker and the DJ) have extremely poignant moments that are, at least for Riley, fleshed out over the course of the series. In the beginning of the series, we meet Nomi, who is (unfortunately remarkably for the television landscape) played by a trans woman, who is threatened by the sinister organization wanting to operate on her brain just as she is beginning to experience the presence of the other Sensates, and her struggle with being misgendered by her mother makes the viewer feel that pain—the lack of acceptance Nomi finds at home that she eventually will find among her new companions. Riley’s story starts off with a rush of violence that leads her to go back to her home in Iceland, and as the viewer learns more about the secrets of her past (which I won’t spoil her) and the suffering she carries with her each day, it becomes clear that while she doesn’t have any special skills, as do the other Sensates (such as fighting or safecracking) her strongest quality is her ability to survive her terrible losses.

Other stories, like those of Capheus and Will, don’t work quite as well. This is due to the large amounts of clich├ęs that make up their lives. Capheus, the van driver, seems to fulfill every stereotype about Africa that the showrunners could think of—he lives in an extremely rural, poor area of Nairobi; his mother has AIDS; and he gets mixed up with a ruthless, corrupt crimelord with much ensuing violence. While Aml Ameen’s performance as Capheus is one of the joys of the show, painting his character as someone who loves nothing more than life itself, this particular Sensate’s story is almost eye-rollingly ridiculous in how it conforms to the narrow ideas Western viewers have been fed about Africa.

Will, the cop from Chicago, faces some of the worst writing and dialogue early on in the show. As a white cop, he is cast into the role of reluctant white savior as he and only he is concerned about the welfare of a black teenager who has been shot, fighting the reluctance of his Latino partner and a black emergency room nurse to get him to safety. The requisite lines about how Will’s determination to save this kid could possibly lead to this kid living to join a gang and shoot someone are all here, and while it does establish the kind of character Will is early on in the context of the show, it doesn’t establish a whole lot of faith in the creativity of the writers.
(https://www.facebook.com/Sense8TV)

There are also the obligatory romances between Sensates, though luckily there are no love triangles. Will and Riley quickly (quicker than logic allows, really) fall in love, and while their love, which is more evident on Will’s part, is voiced over and over again especially over the later episodes, the Will/Riley relationship actually pales in comparison to the spark that emerges between Wolfgang and Kala when he appears before her, naked, like a vision during her wedding to a man she does not want to marry, causing her to faint. While the latter characters fulfill the easy “bad boy” falls for “good girl” storyline, Max Riemelt and Tina Desai express their characters’ intense attraction to one another through the limited screen-time they have together more effectively than Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton do. This aspect of the romances on the show could be due to Middleton’s performance as Riley, who is someone so guarded that her immediate trust of and feelings for Will, as required by the plot, reads as slightly out of character, at least in earlier episodes.

I did say I enjoyed this show—and I did! I watched it twice and spent several weeks anxiously updating my Google search for Sense8 to see if it had been renewed (it has, thank goodness). The Wachowskis are known for their visuals and kinetic storytelling, which is on full display in Sense8.Each establishing shot lavishes attention on the details of each location, and the colors are spectacular. The use of editing to show not only how the Sensates communicate face to face from thousands of miles away, but also inhabit one another’s bodies to save one another when they are in trouble, is extremely satisfying to watch. The sequence of Nomi’s escape from the authorities, who want to take her back to the hospital for her brain operation, contains a great series of cuts that I won’t spoil here. The pacing improves over the course of the first season, though the slowness of perhaps the first four to five are probably what resulted in Sense8 getting mediocre reviews from critics (69 percent on RottenTomatoes, 63 on Metacritic).

Overall, Sense8, with its diversity of cast and of stories and its emphasis on connections that span the globe, allowing people to communicate with the ease of a retweet or a reblog, is really a show meant for the Millennial generation. It’s definitely one of the more creative shows on “television” today, and I look forward to seeing the second season and its continued place in the Netflix lineup.

(This piece was originally written for The Stake and can be found here.)

Comments