I sucked up the first four episodes of Sense8 like a parched man drinks water. This was the show I’ve been waiting for all year. It has it all: the writing, settings, plot, characters, the performances, all are markedly above the line of expectation.
So, why hadn’t I heard of it before?
One reason is that the show is only available on Netflix, and only since 05 June. That means I’m only ten days behind the curve on this which, for me, is notable. I usually don’t hear of shows like this until after they’ve been canceled.
Another reason is that the reviews on the show have been mixed. Even those who liked it have couched their praise in overstuffed caveats, complimenting the show as often as they complain.
Negative reactions run the gamut. The actors are all too pretty, was one complaint, and I’m like, “Have you watched anything on network TV? Everyone’s gorgeous!” Another felt that the left-wing LGBT agenda is too “in your face,” to which I say, “Oh, you mean, unlike the hetero agenda, which dominates everything?”
But one consistent complaint is that the storytelling method is disjointed, obscure, deliberately complicated, and too “filmic.”
This is understandable. The storytelling style of Sense8 is unlike anything I’ve seen, and its compelling nature is hard to pin down. It does not fit in any pigeonhole, can be hard to follow, but nevertheless, it is compelling.
If your just catching up, Sense8 is a 12-episode Netflix original series, created by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). It features eight characters who, through one woman’s ultimate act, are transformed into a cluster of “sensates,” physically separated individuals all with a psychic connection to one another. The characters are scattered across the globe–Mexico City, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Berlin, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Seoul–and none has any prior relationship with another member.
In the first four episodes (all I’ve watched as of this writing), the eight slowly become aware of their connection and their abilities to interact with one another. This long main plotline is interspersed with smaller crises that affect one or another of the individuals, providing opportunities for them to come to each other’s aid, culminating in the first real crisis for the “cluster,” when one of them is threatened with lobotomization, the equivalent of “sensate death.”
From the beginning, and throughout this rising action, we see the influence of two mysterious factions. One, personified by a sensate adept named Jonas, is supportive of the cluster, while the other is a shadowy, inimical cabal that is “hunting” cluster members. It’s a classic good vs. evil scenario, and I expect further episodes will reveal motivations and betrayals of trust–though hopefully not as many as some of the more frustrating shows of recent years.
The style of the show, though, is what sets it apart. The connection experienced by members of the cluster is depicted as a sudden translocation, like astral travel (called “visiting” in the show) or body-swapping possession (called “sharing”). The deejay lounging in her London bed-sit is suddenly standing next to the cop in Chicago, or the kick-boxer from Seoul can abruptly inhabit the body of the van driver in Nairobi. During the first four shows, as these sensates explore their connections, the scenes shift all over the place as the members of the cluster all share a common experience, and by the end of the fourth episode, they’re all asking–along with the lyrics of the song they’re sharing–“What’s going on?”
Whereas other shows like Heroes and Lost (both of which have been compared to Sense8) purposefully withhold information known to some characters–creating a cheap and unsatisfying experience, in my view–here, the characters don’t know anything about what’s going on, and Jonas (who seems to be on their side) is telling them as much as he can in the brief “visits” he can manage with them. There is a growing sense of urgency and a constant ramp-up of peril as layers of complexity emerge, but I did not find it overwhelming or annoying at all, as it followed an organic path of experience for the clustered sensates.
You have to pay attention, though (and this may be what frustrates some of the reviewers; you can’t watch with one eye on your iPad). Once the show establishes that the deejay lives in London, it doesn’t continually remind you when the scene shifts back to her.
Naturally, I have some nits to pick with the show. Nothing’s perfect. For instance, the cluster members are all young and tech savvy, but while every twenty-something I know is in constant contact with their cadre via their smart-phone, in the first four episodes I saw only one text sent. Also, as this mysterious connection they share manifests, no one sits down to google… well… anything.
These don’t bother me, though, because as the action progresses, I become engrossed with the characters themselves. They all have history and quirks, they are all very different from one another. They are honest and criminal, struggling and well-to-do, but each one is a product of their environment, their city, their family, and their past.
As to the “LGBT agenda,” yes, the characters are straight, gay, bi, and trans. They cover the spectrum of sexuality, but in no case is a character’s sexuality pertinent to the main action; it affects their lives and the people who surround them (as you’d expect) but it is irrelevant to the functioning of the cluster or their “sensate” abilities. In this way also, the show stands apart from almost everything else.
A third of the way through the 12-episode series, there are plenty of mysteries to be exposed, and much for these sensates to learn and overcome. The larger plot of factions and cabals is just beginning to emerge, and I can’t wait to binge on the rest of the series.
If only I didn’t have to sleep.
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