Sense8 seems like the kind of show that began with the title, then developed an edgy concept to match/justify the title, then built a plot around the concept, then sort of accumulated characters to fill the whole thing out. That’s conjecture, of course, and of course there’s no “right” way to build a lasting story in the medium of television or otherwise. Lana and Andy Wachowski have been around the block, too, with the Matrix series, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas and their most recent film Jupiter Ascending among the numerous entries on their joint résumé. Their sci-fi movies are big, loud, and undeniably ambitious, and while the jury’s mostly still out on whether those movies are any good or not it’s certainly true that their concepts are highly original.
The concept of Sense8 is simultaneously the best thing about the series and the most frustrating. Eight people, spread across the world from San Francisco to Chicago to Mexico City to London to Berlin to Nairobi to Mumbai to Seoul, make a fascinating discovery about themselves: they are able to sense each other. Thoughts, feelings, secrets, emotions — regardless of the distance between them, these “Sensates” (get it?) share a bond that no one else can understand. They themselves don’t understand it for some time, and by the end of the first season there’s still a lot left to explore about the connection these eight people share.
That’s a good thing, and Sense8 borrows the “mystery box” mentality from Lost — the show most ostensibly similar to Sense8, which we’ll return to in a minute — by starting with questions that both the characters and the audience hope will be answered. The why and how of this supernatural connection are only the beginning. An evil corporation seeks to corrupt these young Sensates, as evil corporations are wont to do (especially in Wachowski stories), and a pair of mysterious mentor-types (Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews) may or may not be the trustworthy advisors the Sensates need. There’s more than enough intrigue surrounding this mystery, and these external players push in on the Sensates from both sides.
But in between that intrigue is a whole lot of set-up — so much so that it’s probably more accurate to say that the intrigue is really just peppered throughout the lengthy, drawn-out stuff that constitutes most of the season. Sense8 is really, really slow at times, and often seems caught in overt attempts to make the characters as interesting as the concept. In that, success is limited — and actually beside the point, because the time would have been better spent making these characters interesting without the concept.
Take Nomi. She’s transgender, living with her girlfriend in San Fransisco. Her mom refuses to accept her identity and still calls her “Mike”. Nomi encounters her Sensate abilities same as the other seven, but in the meantime she stumbles into the heart of the conspiracy involving her abilities and the aforementioned evil corporation. Seems cool, and at times this translates into a near-miss action sequence, but for the most part Nomi’s arc is dictated by convenience that even surpasses the convenience of reading someone else’s thoughts. At least that’s a part of the concept, a part of the world. Nomi’s “hacker” identity and her Nancy Drew bent seem contrived, and the writing supporting these scenes is borderline cringeworthy. “This isn’t going to stop,” Nomi says, “they’re never going to leave us alone — not unless we make them.” Amanita, Nomi’s fiery girlfriend, helps the cliché along: “Uh-oh…you’ve got that look in your eye.” Nomi: “Fuck these guys.” Amanita: “Shit just got real.”
Only fictional people talk that way. Sense8 has a concept of pure science-fiction, a concept so out of this world that the characters can’t be fictional for it to work. They have to be the link to the real world, and while I’m sure someone of Nomi’s diction and sensibility exists in the world her character seems like the weakest of the eight. Lost‘s concept is out-there, too, but most of the characters aren’t like the ones in Sense8. In Lost we have a doctor, a disabled box-factory employee, a flailing musician, a jilted pregnant woman, and a Korean couple who hate each other; in Sense8 we have a master safecracker, a famous DJ, a famous actor, and a Korean woman who moonlights at underground boxing clubs. Sure, Lost also has a con man and a bank robber and a guy who won the lottery, but Sense8‘s world just seems more populated by these: characters, not people. And yes: it’s cool that there’s a prominent transgender in the story, but that can’t be the only touchpoint.
So that’s Nomi — now take Capheus. He’s a bus driver in a little slum in Nairobi, and if there’s one thing he loves above all it’s Jean-Claude Van Damme. The van he drives is the Van Damn, and damn, does he drive it. He’s not the Transporter or anything, but he knows his way around the vehicle as if he’s been driving it his whole life. Most importantly, Capheus seems like the only one in the show who loves life unconditionally. He laughs, he drives, he sits spellbound as Jean-Claude high-kicks his way across his television. There’s more life in this person than in ten Nomis, partly due to the heartfelt performance from Aml Ameen and partly due to the fact that the passion is written into his being. Nomi tells Amanita she loves her a zillion times over the course of a dozen episodes (even “I fucking love you”, so that we really get it), but that passion never once seems as genuine as the drive inside Capheus.
Maybe Sense8 tries to do too much. Every time we see one of the Sensates we’re bound to see another one in the same scene, as they’re usually sharing the experiences, and that means cutting between one Sensate’s reality and the other. Most of the time it works, and some of the camera trickery is brilliant. But, as we stated before, this makes it really difficult to pull any of the characters away from the concept in order to take a hard look at them, and at worst it means the characters aren’t so much a part of the story as bound by it. In the opening credits sequence alone we see about twenty-five different cityscapes, multiple parades, elephants, fields, gay men smooching, women dancing, traffic jams, fireworks — it’s just everything mashed up together. It’s a sensory experience, to be sure, but the sense of being overwhelmed or missing something isn’t a particularly desirable sense.
Granted, that doesn’t mean that Sense8 isn’t occasionally exhilarating. A flashback to a young Kala at festival in the seventh hour “W.W.N. Double D?”, a murder at the end of the same episode (which, coincidentally [or not], is both the most electric entry of the first season and one of the few not directed by the Wachowskis) — these are the rare sequences that have nothing to do with the concept, at least not explicitly, and yet they inform both the characters and the themes of Sense8 on the whole. All the exposition in the world means little if these scenes aren’t employed effectively, and the first season would have benefited from more of these.
Admittedly, the more exciting moments are the moments when the Sensates have a connection that results in more than just someone else’s face in the mirror — moments when we glimpse what the elevated concept is really capable of. The best of these comes in “We Will All Be Judged by the Courage of Our Hearts”, when Nomi is cornered by two policemen with more on the way. In the span of thirty seconds she escapes with the help of three other Sensates — Will, Sun and Capheus — dismantling the cops and speeding away in a stolen car. Nomi can’t fight or drive, but Sun and Capheus can. Nomi can’t think on her feet as well as Will, so he walks her through every movement, even those dictated by Sun or Capheus. And the best part is that Will and Sun and Capheus all have their own storylines going on at the same time, all the way in Chicago and Seoul and Nairobi, and though this single scene happens suddenly we still have a firm grasp of where everyone is. A written description of the scenario, even one more thorough than this, just won’t capture it. The staging in this scene isn’t just impressive for Sense8 — it’s an enlivening, heady experience that represents some of the very best action direction this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.
The finale lifts the lid off stuff like this, and it’s at the very least promising to think that a second season might dispense with the eleven installments of set-up and just get to the good stuff. The writing needs improvement, too, and the glaring holes in the first season might threaten Sense8 in the long run if not addressed. Are the Sensates only connected in times of need? Wouldn’t it be more effective if we saw the connection actually posing an obstacle to them once in a while, instead of just convenience? And the evil corporation “BPO” — why the hell do they have a website?
It’s a tough call, ultimately, whether Sense8 is worth it by the end of the season. It’s by turns impossibly boring and uniquely exhilarating, frustrating in a bad way and frustrating in a good way. Netflix hasn’t yet had a show be discontinued after only one season, so time will tell whether Sense8 can learn from the mistakes of the first season and capitalize on the moments of pure creativity.