If you value originality in your entertainment, it’s hard to not root for “Sense8.” The brainchild of “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski and the legendary Wachowskis, Netflix’s newest series (and maybe its first true genre effort, especially if you ignore “Hemlock Grove” the way most people do) features a young, talented cast and metric tons of ambition.
Here’s the deal: Eight strangers, living very different lives in very different places all around the world, find themselves suddenly linked together. A Mexican movie star blinks and finds himself looking at a Korean businesswoman. A Chicago cop is suddenly in the same room as an Icelandic DJ. A transgender hacker finds a bus driver from Nariobi in the driver’s seat. An Indian scientist sees way more of a German criminal than she ever wanted. They don’t know why, or how, this is happening. But there’s an evil corporation who wants to track them all down, and they’ll need to work together to escape it.
And that, right there, is the best I can do when it comes to explaining this show in broad terms. Because “Sense8” feels, at times, deliberately complicated. The concept of creating a larger mythology out of nothing is always exciting, but the key to doing it successfully involves a lot of world-building and rule-making. Meanwhile, “Sense8” is so stripped down that some of the fundamentals become hard to grasp. It takes a while for the details to sink in, about what is happening when and where, and what it means for the people involved.
Part of the problem also involves the fact that the filmic devices used to communicate how characters are remotely shifting into different locations are pretty bare-bones. Much of it boils down to just having actors suddenly appear in scenes, without the viewer really understanding who else can see them and what interactions they can have with their surroundings. You do eventually figure out the rules, but it takes time. It’s not spoon-fed, which is one of the best things about the show, but also one of the worst. “Sense8” makes you work.
The show’s aversion to exposition borders on shellfish allergy, to the point where you suspect that “Sense8” deliberately counts on confusion to serve as intrigue. The mysterious Jonas (Naveen Andrews) is the show’s primary mouthpiece when it comes to explaining what it means to be a “sensate,” but his appearances throughout the show are minimal. After a quick tease of insight in Episode 2, the first real blast of exposition comes midway through Episode 4.
Of course, the counterargument is that until that point in the story, the characters are as confused as we are, as to why they’re suddenly floating around the lives of people who are theoretically strangers. The reason they’re clumsy in their interactions with their fellow psychically-linked compatriots is that they have no idea what’s going on, so the show reflects that.
But even then, the first action sequence that feels like it really, truly utilizes the promise of the premise comes in Episode 8. The sequence is surprisingly thrilling as a result, given that what is happening — a woman sneaking away from the cops — isn’t what you might define as an action set-piece. The thrill comes, instead, from watching characters you’ve come to understand well cooperating in harmony, rescuing one of their own.
Pacing is a problem here, but that’s in part because of the show’s deep commitment to character-building. Many episodes take a moment to sit down and just let the characters talk about their pasts and their presents, using both real-time conversation and flashback to reveal first loves, first kills, first blowjobs. Despite the underlying threat of Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann) and the evil corporation that’s out to track down and/or lobotimize the “sensate,” “Sense8” has a fondness for letting its characters take time-outs and bask in the moment — especially if the moment involves romance.
A snarky response to “Sense8” might be to compare being a “sensate” to joining a psychic version of OkCupid. While Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is in a committed relationship with Amanita (Freema Agyeman), and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is also in love when the series begins, two new couples emerge during the course of the first season, and, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to watch Episode 6 in an office with your co-workers around. Let’s just say that Episode 6 takes things to a special place we might call “the orgy zone.”
But the show’s love of love is not at all shocking, given how the Wachowskis have always had a profoundly romantic streak — never forget that the ultimate climax of “The Matrix” boils down to Trinity telling Neo, “So you see, you can’t be dead. You can’t be… because I love you.” And there are a few hints that loving your fellow “sensate” can lead to problems which the show might dig into in future (potential) seasons.
The show lets itself have a little fun with the setup. The next time I get 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Going On” stuck in my head, I’ll assume it’s because someone else in my “sensate” cluster is singing it at karaoke. But it might be things like that which make it hard for “Sense8” to come together. For example: Doona Bae plays a corporate executive at her father’s company who is also an underground kickboxing champion. That, on its own terms, feels like the premise of one of the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies that Capheus (Aml Ameen) loves, but that premise, genre-wise, feels out of sync with the more intimate stories being told, like Kala (Tina Desai) struggling with the pending marriage to a man she doesn’t love.
The Wachowskis are credited with directing most episodes, and their tone leans towards the super-serious, which clashes with the elements that might play better with a touch of camp. You can tell those involved with the production believe, with all their hearts, in what they’re doing, but it could have used, perhaps, a little more distance.
Overall, the first season of “Sense8” doesn’t quite work the way it should. But it’s hard not to step back and say, “Goddamn — the balls on that show.” It’s the pole-vaulter who knicks the bar with her ankle on the descent. And here’s the thing: I like a show with diversity. I like a show with ambition. I like a show with balls. I like these characters. I like “Sense8.” And I am 100 percent interested in seeing what happens next.