Sense8 was cancelled this past month in a blow to many fans who loved the show's entirely unique take on the superhero genre, its global reach and its inclusive cast of characters. The show was a little sappy and not as strong in Season 2 but it was a very novel show. While I'm glad the show got to two seasons and I don't blame Netflix for what must have been a difficult financial project to bring to fruition, but it is unfortunate that the Wachowski siblings (most notably of "Matrix" fame) often aren't appreciated for their grandiose scale of film making. Here is my Season 1 review that was originally published at Hidden Remote:
Netflix has been releasing series at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pace which is why many will likely have missed Sense8 but the ambitious series from the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) and J. Michael Stracynski (Babylon 5) has a lot of ambition and would surely gain notice in a less crowded television landscape.
Sense8 isn’t doing itself any favors with a tagline as grandiose (from Netflix’s press release) as “a gripping global tale of minds linked and souls hunted.” There’s no denying though, that its a show of high ambitions both in production value and theme.
While there are occasional moments of self-indulgence, the episodic structure and the slow creep of serialized storytelling in Golden Age TV allow Sense8 to deliver on the Wachowskis’ grandiose sensibilities in a way that a film version of this material might not be able to pull off. In other words, this is a serialized series with about as slow of a burn as your average TV drama in this day and age.
It takes some time to get invested in the eight principal characters and an even longer time to understand what these eight disparate stories have to do with each other.
At the start, all we have to go on is a dying woman (Daryl Hannah, a lot less chirpy than her Splash role) and a phenomenon of eight unrelated people across the world appearing in each other’s visions and in some cases inhabiting each other’s bodies. Why these people don’t try flying to each other’s countries or even contacting them through facebook/email/skype to double check if they’re just hallucinating is beyond me.
It’s also been noted that these all happen to coincidentally be very good-looking people but that’s how TV goes and there is a tremendous amount of diversity to celebrate here aside from the ugliness demographic:
We have a widowed Icelandic DJ (Tuppence Middleton as Riley) living in London whose boyfriend gets her in trouble with a drug purchase gone awry; a closeted Mexican soap opera star (Miguel Angel Silvestre as Lito) who is in love but can’t come out for professional reasons; a diamond thief in Berlin (Max Riemelt as Wolfgang) going after an ambitious heist that will put him in the crosshairs of family politics; a pharmacist in India (Tina Desai as Kala) sentenced to marry someone she doesn’t love; a Korean businesswoman moonlighting as an ultimate fighter (Doona Bae as Sun) in the midst of a family scandal; a transsexual blogger and hacker (Jamie Clayton as Nomi) living in San Francisco; and a bus driver in Nairobi with an affinity for Jean Claude Van Damme (Ami Ameen as Capheus) whose bus route goes through gang territory.
The eighth sensate, Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J Smith), has a storyline that puts him more in contact with the big grand mystery. While things are being revealed, the sensates are mostly content to accept their pseudo-teleportation powers and put them to full use by lending one another their fighting moves (Sun), hacking ability (Nomi), wisdom (Capheus), or in the most extraneous example, simply plopping down on the couch and watch a Van Damme film (Seriously, we did not need that scene, Kala and Capheus).
To call this a conventional superhero story would be misleading as no one’s trying to save the world. It’s more comparable to the 1990’s computer game Mist (If I may date myself) where you’re plopped down on an island without even knowing the game objective (and, yes, that was frustrating to 7th grade me. I wanted bad guys to shoot, damnit!).
Each of these stories offer something although there are varying degrees to which they transcend the standard genre conventions of comic-book-inspired superhero storytelling. In the case of Kala, the storyline seems to be borrowed form a Bollywood musical without the song-and-dance numbers, while Capheus’s storyline is reminiscent of the 2002 film City of God which depicts the inevitability of gang violence in Brazilian favelas.
While I’m often suspicious of a film or TV series with “global ambitious,” there is a lot to be said for how thoroughly Sense8 incorporates place into its storylines right down to the genre elements. Each of the characters, whether it’s the culture in Mexico that would make Lito’s coming out difficult or the need to save face that’s prevalent in East Asian business culture (Sun), is defined by their place and time.
By and large, these stories all have staying power (Kala’s doomed marriage as a stand-alone story and Will minus the Sense8 investigation might be the exceptions) with varying degrees of success based on the acting and chemistry. The moments between Riley and her widowed father, for example, have much more staying power than what was likely written for those scenes on paper.
Similarly, I was very hesitant about shipping any of the sensates partially because of the ickyness and partially because I was hoping to see a show about relationships larger than simple “Will they or won’t they” questions but the romantic pairings were satisfying because they were so wonderfully abstract and unconventional. As a number of reviews have also noted, the Lito and Nomi storylines offer a highly progressive and eye-opening tale on gay and transgender characters whether the stories are the most well-written on television or not.
This is all in keeping with the humanist tone of the series as the characters are generally good guys (Perhaps the most daring storyline belongs to Wolfram in the sense that he’s not a “good guy” by his own acknowledgement) and have interactions with each other that are all beneficial.
This is all enhanced with photography that can be described as gorgeous.
A minor complaint, however, is that some of the violence is jarring. The show is admittedly enhanced by storylines that lead to action scenes but some of the characters get very, very violent in a way that literally denies the humanity of others.