[This review was originally posted on Popgates. It is being re-posted here on a reader’s request, since Popgates has discontinued its pop culture column and thus deleted the original post.
And hey, just in time for season two…]
A troubled Icelandic DJ trying to get by in London
A San Francisco hacktivist celebrating Pride with her girlfriend
An action-movie-loving bus driver from Nairobi
A German safecracker trying to get out of his mobster family’s shadow
A closeted melodrama actor living in Mexico City
A Korean businesswoman/part-time martial artist trying to keep her family company afloat
An Indian scientist preparing to marry a man she’s not in love with
And a Chicago cop with a heart of gold and parental issues
…have in common?
Well, nothing much at all, until they all witness the suicide of a mysterious, almost angelic woman in white. From that moment on, they start noticing strange things: they can taste what someone else is eating on the other side of the world, hear the thoughts and emotions of people they’ve never met, and master skills they’ve never even tried to learn. They’re a cluster of Sensates, spread across the globe but linked by a psychic connection.
Sense8 is one of the first Netflix original series to really take off, and it thrives in this format—it flows very nicely into a 12-hour-long movie rather than being episodic and has its fair share of fun with cliffhangers, making it easily binge-watchable, and frankly it’s so diverse that I wonder if network TV would have dared pick it up. Themes of religion, sexuality, misogyny and gender identity are dealt with head on and are integral to the story and character arcs, not to mention the fact that the two pre-established (and very focussed on) romantic couples are both queer. They have very different dynamics, but both are shown, repeatedly and constantly, to be dedicated, adoring, and passionate. You cannot escape the gay in Sense8, and these characters all have a generally good time or can at least expect happy endings… making it a far cry from mainstream commercial TV, which seems keen on amassing a list of dead fictional lesbians longer than the Amazon River by the end of the year (but that is another discussion for another article).
The storylines are all unique and engrossing in their own way, the same way the eight main characters all have something relatable and interesting at their core, and are so diverse and different that any viewer would be hard-pressed to find a sensate they didn’t see themselves in at least a little bit. Having eight simultaneous storylines is only really confusing at the start when you’re first getting to know everyone, and thankfully, unlike the Wachowskis’ previous project Cloud Atlas (which had six interconnecting but separate storylines) there’s plenty of time and breathing space to give everyone equal weight and enough screentime to ground the audience without jumping around too much.
And there’s something for everyone, too—are you enticed by the drama of Kala getting ready to marry a man she doesn’t love, or is Sun’s struggle with whether to protect of betray her awful brother more your style? How about gang violence and car chases? The solving of mysteries via computer hacking? A character reconnecting with their traumatic past as thy return home? A karaoke bar scene? A… psychic orgy? Sense8 has it all, and a healthy balance of action and dialogue as well as a balance of terrible things happening and good things happening, so you never collapse into despair. It’s a hopeful show overall, and doesn’t try hard to be shocking and grab our attention. More than anything it tugs at our heartstrings—it’s very character-driven, and the integral theme is connections. Each sensate is lonely or lost in their own way, but through this unexpected and bizarre new link they have, they find themselves not so alone in the universe, whether that means swapping heartfelt advice, watching a movie together, or telepathically sharing skills so they can beat up a room full of people.
The show isn’t perfect, of course—as I said, having eight deeply-developed main characters who each have completely different and separate storylines is a lot to follow and can lead to a real muddle, whether that’s in the form of backstory being confusing or not revealed until late, or characters disappearing for ages at a time when they aren’t the focus of that episode. Also… diverse as the cast and type of stories may be, I can’t help but feel they fall into ethnic stereotypes, not helped by the fact that each sensate (apart from Will and Nomi, the two Americans—who are quite different, I might add) and their story are the sole representation of their race and culture in the show. Sun’s storyline is about a Korean woman under the heel of her father and less-competent-but-much-preferred brother, striving to support the family business, while venting her stress in kickboxing. It kind of falls into the well-trodden archetype of Asians being obsessed with honour and family and also being martial arts experts, the same way Capheus and his story fits the Western assumption that all of Africa is a crime-ridden dustbowl full of impoverished AIDS patients. While elements of these are definitely true, or have been accurate in the past, it feels a touch lazy to drop into these archetypes simply because they’re what (American) viewers expect when they think of Seoul or Nairobi.
Where the broad international scope does succeed is the location shooting and cinematography—there are some truly stunning places, sets and shots that add mood, atmosphere and emotional punch as well as showing off just how amazing the homes of the sensates are, whether they’re cityscapes, festivals, or sweeping natural vistas. The editing is also very clever in the way it takes us back and forth and in and out of the psychic mind links and impossible conversations, and the use of music to set the stage is evocative too, whether it’s classical orchestrations or ‘What’s Going On?’ (which you will, guaranteed, have stuck in your head for the next week at least).
Sense8 has its flaws but it’s hugely entertaining, has a fun and interesting premise and a bunch of great characters to play with it, and just looks and sounds really nice too. It’s also got LGBTQ+ folks as the heroes of their own stories, kicking ass and getting love, support and happy endings, which alone is enough to make it stand out. And it’s not every day you see such a cinematically stunning, er, psychic orgy. Next time you feel like settling down with Netflix for a few hours, I’d point you in this direction.