First things first: Anyone who might have been worried that “Sense8” — operating under the notion that a Christmas special should be somewhat family-friendly — would choose to cut back on the sex and violence… nope! Merry Christmas from Netflix, who knows exactly what fans of the mind-bending drama want from the series: the opportunity to watch these eight no-longer-strangers unite for ass-kicking and orgies.
The two-hour “A Christmas Special” functions largely as a continuation of the story established in Season 1, covering a period of several months over the lives of our favorite Senseates. The range of problems faced — and the scale of their severity — vacillates wildly; while Sun (Doona Bae) faces mortal peril behind the walls of her Korean prison, Kala (Tina Desai) struggles with having a rich and handsome husband that she might not love and Lito’s (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) hidden sexuality threatens to be exposed. Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) continues to grapple with dangerous forces within the Berlin criminal underworld, Riley (Tuppence Middleton) and Will (Brian J. Smith) keep trying to escape the dangerous Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann) and Nomi (Jamie Clayton) also remains on the run from the authorities.
All of this gets set up relatively quickly via pop music-driven montages, taking us all around the world so that we might get reacquainted with our favorites. Notable is the arrival of Toby Onwumere as the show’s new Capheus, replacing Season 1’s Aml Ameen with a few light comments about his new appearance before the show proceeds with business as usual.
And, in fact, “business as usual” — at least, however you might define that within the trippy world of “Sense8” — is perhaps the best way to describe the action we see over the course of this installment. Balancing eight lead characters (plus assorted allies and partners, plus at least one major enemy) has always been the series’ toughest challenge, and you see that struggle emerge a fair amount in this two-parter.
The plotting is perhaps a little lighter than you might expect: Why spend more than one or two scenes on Kala’s marriage, when the cat-and-mouse game Will and Mr. Whispers are playing has the clearest consequences? There’s also occasionally an over-reliance on easy answers that is either writers Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski wanting to burn through a lot of plot quickly, or setting up further developments for Season 2 that we won’t see resolved until May 2017.
Then again, “Sense8” hasn’t fascinated us for so long because of the plotting. Instead, it’s the core group of characters and their delicate bonds, which capture our imagination. Even when a scene isn’t explicitly, ahem, orgy-istic, there’s still a sensuality to their connection that also somehow has a degree of purity to it. For, as naked and writhing as its characters might get on screen, somehow it never really feels dirty. And where that seems to come from is this: “Sense8” is a show that always feels incredibly true to itself, especially its deeply held ethos that love, in whatever shape or form it might come in, is something to be honored and cherished.
It’s always been a through-line of the Wachowskis’ work (Lilly Wachowski was not involved with Season 2, but Lana directed every episode), but “Sense8” makes that concept explicit and personal for each of its characters. And much as in Season 1, it’s some of the one-on-one scenes that really let the cast shine — such as an intimate conversation about sex between Sun and Kala, or Wolfgang providing Lito with a casual assist and a manly handshake.
While “A Christmas Special” gets its Sensates through the holidays, the darkness still lurks, as this world remains full of dangers. But this remains a show about connection, and while it’s certainly not family-friendly, there are far worse holiday viewing options. The only catch: Having to wait until May for the rest of the story. There’s a danger that by splitting up Season 2 in this way, “Sense8” might end up feeling overly disjointed. But we had to wait a year and a half to get a new installment of this story. So perhaps like most gifts we receive this time of year, we’re best off just appreciating what we got.