Note: This review avoids major spoilers and specific plot points but alludes to the characters’ fates and glosses over a few other spoiler-ish things. For those who wish to remain in complete darkness; tread lightly.
Underneath the pedagogic dialogue, beyond the rudimentary direction, past the bland performances, and over the mountains of condescension, something truly beautiful lies in the new original Netflix series, “Sense8.” Disappointingly, the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski (creator of “Babylon 5“), demonstrate time and time again that their primary concern is not in telling a convincing story, or developing fascinating characters, or diving deep into their world’s evolutionary pseudoscience, or doing any of these things in artistically accomplished ways. Instead, the primary focus is thinly veiled behind specific agendas and philosophies, turning most of “Sense8” into a lecture on gender equality, religious hypocrisy and LGBT rights. To quote a surprisingly savvy German criminal from the show, most of it is a lot of “motivational, TED-type talk.”
Nonetheless, the show’s supra-humanitarian ideals and deep respect for the power of love and empathy should rub off on even hardened skeptics. Similarly, its absolution of cultural barriers and societal labels is bold and exhilarating. The scenes concerning connection between the protagonists condense these notions into something undoubtedly moving, and few should be able to argue that “Sense8” is entirely bereft of emotionally stirring and entertaining moments. Yet arguing why “Sense8” is not a good show is even easier. Once the dust settles and Sigur Ros sails us out of Season 1 with embroidered catharsis, one just can’t shake the feeling that this is the first major slip in Netflix‘s slate of original content of 2015 so far.
Discussing the plot is a chore, and reminds me of Tony Shalhoub in “The Man Who Wasn’t There” talking about the Uncertainty Principle; the more you look, the less you really know. What we do know is that eight individuals from eight different corners of the world and eight different social classes (and eight other different qualities that get the same point across) get suddenly and irrevocably linked to one another, after Angelica (Daryl Hannah) and Jonas (Naveen Andrews) “birth” them into a cluster of “sensates.” What is that? We don’t really find out until Episode 10 (“What Is Human?“), but it’s like a second species of Homo sapiens.
The eight in question are: Will (Brian J. Smith), a haunted Chicago cop with father issues; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a haunted Icelandic DJ still dealing with a tragedy from her past; Kala (Tina Desai), an Indian scientist haunted by the fact that she’s about to marry a man she does not love; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a haunted German criminal also struggling with father issues; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a Mexican movie star who is, wouldn’t you know it, also haunted because he’s forced to keep his homosexuality a secret; Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a trans-woman blogger and ex-hacktivist living in San Francisco; Sun (Doona Bae), a Korean business-woman-by-day-kickboxer-by-night who has to deal with two inept males in her family; and Capheus (Aml Ameen), the kindest Kenyan bus driver in the world who is obsessed with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Throughout the entire season, each of the eight deal with their individual dilemmas, while helping one another out whenever the need arises through what is called “sharing” and “visiting.” They’re linked to each other and together form one collective mind. Aside from each of the sensate’s personal conflicts, the whole cluster is in danger when a big, bad corporation called Biologic Preservation Organization begins to hunt them, headed by a man called Whispers (Terrence Mann) who has been tracking their kind for a long time.
If you start probing into the “why’s” of what’s written in the previous paragraph, you start feeling the effects of the Uncertainty Principle. For all the times “Sense8” opens the doors for a cohesive explanation, the door chain denying entrance is measured in vague profundities, sweet nothings, and featherweight theories. After a befuddling prologue in the pilot episode, it’s only in Episode 2 (“I Am Also A We“) when the “why” is flirted with, and Jonas tells Will, “you’re not losing your mind, it’s just expanding.” It’s a catchy line, but ends up being cool for cool’s sake, because for the entire season we barely scratch the surface of this expansion in any tangible way. When Nomi is questions the phenomenon, asking “why these minds?” her girlfriend’s mother (who conveniently lectures on evolution) suggests that “to be something more than what evolution would define as ‘yourself,’ you’d need something different from yourself.” To quote another German criminal from the show: “Deep.”
Except… not really. My pick for the most nonsensical line of the whole season comes from Jonas in Episode 9 (“Death Doesn’t Let You Say Goodbye“), when he’s explaining the “us vs. them” dynamic to Will, and says, “who we are is less important than what we are, and what we are is different from them.” Peel it any way you’d like, but you’ll find that pseudo-profound statement amounts to nothing. Couple this with the wafer-thin motives of Whispers and the entire ambivalent existence of BPO, and the sensates’ growing acute awareness of each other becomes parallel to the viewer’s’ own growing acute awareness of how fragile and unremarkable the foundation of the concept is. Throughout, the enigmatic screen presence of Terrence Mann goes to waste.
Of course, if “Sense8” continues, it may very well delve deeper into all of these matters, but the more I try to justify its undercooked premise this way, the more I feel like that’s a convenient and sneaky hook designed to keep people watching beyond Season 1. For a show that’s based on a unique sci-fi phenomenon, it would do well not to leave too many fundamental questions unanswered after 12 episodes, unless the actual stories of the characters are compelling enough to immerse the viewer beyond looking for answers. And about that…
Separate all eight narrative threads, and you’re left with eight unexciting storylines, all with emotional beats that have been rinsed and repeated in an innumerable amount of past shows and movies. The one exception to this rule could be Nomi, who is now one among the very few trans characters to play a major role in a mainstream show, and whose own storyline directly pivots around her identity as such. But she’s got stiff competition in the recent and much more enlightened example of Amazon‘s “Transparent” (though it must said that it’s refreshing to have a trans female actor portray a trans female character, and Clayton does a solid job). Riley’s tragic story is perhaps the one that holds the most emotional resonance, and is strongly supported by the fact that Tuppence Middleton delivers the show’s most heartfelt performance, but even her narrative prevents full immersion by overflowing with too many familiar beats. Capheus’ narrative and the shady characters he gets involved with while trying to help his ailing mother mimics the storytelling ingenuity of a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, which, while meta and entertaining, nonetheless diminishes attempts at a serious tone.
Kala’s story of marrying someone she does not truly love plays out like a traditional soap opera and is complimented by the more modern soap opera of Lito’s dilemma; he’s forced to hide his sexual orientation because it would prevent him from getting the parts he wants. Sun’s story in Korea is interesting, and Doona Bae tries her best with what she’s given, but it doesn’t take long for her underground kickboxing persona to be rendered a gimmick for the sake of helping Capheus, Nomi, and anyone else who might get into trouble with some bad dudes. That takes nothing away from the fight scenes, however. If the Wachowskis have held onto something from the bygone days of “The Matrix,” it’s their penchant for great action choreography, which is made all the more exciting here because of the harmonious camaraderie felt between the sensates as they help each other out.
Therein lies the one consistent and positive power of “Sense8,” which kept me going even while so much of its execution repelled me. The bonds between the sensates increase as the season nears its conclusion, and besides a handful of exemplary action scenes, there are at least four major moments of connection that had a profound impact and successfully break free of the surrounding cheese. Interestingly enough, two involve music; the conclusion of Episode 4 (“What’s Going On?“) when Wolfgang karaokes to 4 Non Blondes‘ classic “What’s Up?,” washing every ’90s child watching in a wave of nostalgia. It’s sung almost in its entirety, and in a moment that recalls “Magnolia‘s” “Wake Up” group song, all seven follow Wolfgang’s lead and sing “Hey! What’s going on!?” At this early stage of the season, none are too familiar with the whole sensate thing so the sequence is charming, funny, and supremely fitting all at once. The conclusion to Episode 10 is even more transcendent —when Riley attends her father’s orchestral concert in Reykjavik, all eight sensates experience an intensity so forceful that it triggers memories of their births. Music and memory get tangled into Riley’s tragic history in a way that makes the entire scene resonate louder than anything else in the show.
The other two moments that affected me in ways I did not expect are much quieter and intimate. The first occurs in Episode 6 (“Demons“), during a conversation between Sun and Riley, where a common factor of each losing their mother at an early age brings the two closer together. The second is a moment shared between Lito and Nomi in Episode 9, when Lito explains how he fell in love with Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Nomi recounts her childhood trauma of being ridiculed and abused as a young boy. “Sense8” is littered with sequences just like these, as two of the most prominent goals of the story are to show how enhanced these characters’ empathy is, and to charge the undercurrent of altruism. Most fall flat due to the flawed execution utilized to present them, be it the on-the-nose dialogue, unconvincing performances, unnecessary swirly camera movements, misuse of music or some other jarring element. But these two particular scenes, coupled with the two aforementioned musical moments, touched me deeply.
Ultimately, once the finale’s anti-climactic climax concludes Season 1, one tries to reconcile the entire experience into a unified whole and finds the flaws outweighing the good intentions. The Wachowskis are by now known as artists with profoundly philanthropic and grandiose ideas, but more often than not they misfire in execution (most recent example being “Jupiter Ascending“) and one of the biggest question marks surrounding “Sense8” is how their big ideas would translate on the spacious format provided by the small screen and Netflix. The simple answer is: not so well. There is an undeniable sense that the Wachowskis and Straczynski don’t care all that much about the elements that make a storyline solid, but more about the politics of what they are promoting. In this way, “Sense8” plays out like an elongated Public Service Announcement, with scenes existing with little to no connection to anything in the context of the narrative. I’m thinking here of Nomi’s “pride” speech in Episode 2, the orgy in Episode 6 (a clusterfuck in more ways than one), and Sun’s conversation with a few male-bashing female inmates, among others.
In more than one instance, the show reminds us that we’re living in the 21st century, so the very concept of exploring themes of gender identity and politics, particularly LGBT issues, in a sci-fi environment feels fresh and potentially groundbreaking. But something incongruous manifests when you spend more time spoon-feeding the audience ideas on religion, gender, and sex, than, say, exploring the science in your science fiction, taking more care in directing your actors, or finding ways to make your narratives less predictable and more in tune with reality. All of the eight in the cluster are essentially good people, all of their stories have happy endings, and all of it is much too convenient and safe, which does little to help one suspend one’s disbelief. And perhaps nothing prevents that suspension more than seeing Koreans speaking to one another in English with Korean accents, Germans speaking in English with German accents, etc. The language issue in “Sense8” will likely divide a lot of viewers, and it’s only justifiable if it wasn’t a creative decision, but for a show that’s all about global inclusivity and the fragility of cultural barriers, it’s painfully ironic all the same.
“Sense8” will no doubt have its fans, and it’s certainly not the messiest work the Wachowskis have done, but at some point the imbalance between politics and art becomes permanently slanted, and the viewing experience turns into an irreversible disappointment. If you can get past the first few episodes without switching off, things will get much better before they get worse, as the format provides enough time to get to know each character long enough to develop some attachment to them. Besides, it’s so enamoured with its own utopian concept that the residue can’t help but rub off to some degree. It’s a case of storytelling Stockholm syndrome that kept me going and there will undoubtedly be certain aspects and moments that should stir up emotions from just about any viewer. Aside from a couple of memorable performances and a tiny handful of expertly crafted scenes, however, my strongest connection to “Sense8” is in imagining what could’ve been had the siblings realized their underrated “Cloud Atlas” in this format. [C-]