“If I were to tell someone in a sentence why they should watch,” says Sense8 executive producer J. Michael Straczynski, “the answer would be, ‘Because you will see things in this show you have never, ever seen before.’”
Truer words were never spoken. It should come as no surprise that this partnership between Straczynski, perhaps best known for Babylon 5, and the Wachowskis of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas fame is a unique, cinematic, and sometimes philosophical series of massive scope. The 12-episode nominally science fiction series new on Netflix is without a doubt one of the most artistic, cerebral, and well-written offerings this year.
The premise of the show is simple enough: a vision of a woman in white (Daryl Hannah) in dire circumstances is shared by eight strangers around the world, and they are suddenly mentally linked, able to share each other’s thoughts, emotions, memories, and skills. Although they initially suffer self-doubt and the worry of those around them about their resulting mental state, the eight strangers learn to help each other as they discover a hidden threat from those who seek to exploit their new abilities or destroy them completely.
The most impressive aspect of this story is the manner in which it’s told. Eight separate tales of very different lives in vastly disparate cultures are woven together by depicting telepathic conversations happening simultaneously across widespread geographical locations. Scenes were shot on location in San Francisco, Chicago, London, Reykjavik, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Berlin, and Mexico City. A psychically-linked dialogue between characters could happen anywhere, seamlessly unfolding, say, both in the savanna of Kenya and a bar in Germany, not one bit of it in a closed studio.
This technique is awe-inspiringly complex and is used in action-driven scenes as well as those with deep emotion. The characters can be present in scenes far away from their homeland or even inhabit each other’s bodies. Sex scenes become orgiastic and cross gender boundaries. Cultural differences are broken down as well since the mental bond is strongly embraced by all eight members of the “cluster,” as it’s called.
In the cluster are Nomi, a transgender hacker; Will, a Chicago gangland cop; Wolfgang, a safecracking thief; Kala, a Bollywood bride-to-be; Capheus, a Kenyan bus driver; Riley, an Icelandic deejay; Sun, a Korean exec with fighting skills; and Lito, a closeted action film star. The Wachowskis notoriously like to explore themes of identity, sexuality, and evolution, and this diverse group portrayed by actors recruited from their native countries bridges its members’ obvious differences in seemingly impossible but ultimately believable ways.
Twelve episodes allow the stories of each character to blossom and overlap, exploring the effects of Kala’s pre-marital doubts, Riley’s drug-addled friends, or Will’s alcoholic father. Far from detracting from the conspiracy and intrigue surrounding their newfound abilities, these emotional moments add depth and strong connectivity between members of a large and varied cast. Other relationships outside the cluster, such as the delightful trio of Lito, his secret lover, and his fake girlfriend, allow for involvement beyond those with the mental link. Freema Agyeman of Doctor Who fame is the crucial rescuer of her girlfriend, Nomi, and Will’s partner on the police force reacts amusingly to the invisible interactions of the hidden cluster-mates. All of these secondary characters add spice to an already well-seasoned recipe.
Much of the credit must be given to the actors, each of whom come from such different backgrounds to form a cast which, despite their obvious differences, manage to form a believably supportive and cohesive team. Standout performances come from Tuppence Middleton (Riley) and Doona Bae (Sun), both of whom are recognizable from earlier Wachowski properties, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending.
Middleton’s Riley remains mostly enigmatic through much of the initial story, but her tale of woe becomes one of the most compelling of the group by the final episode. Her pain is palpable on the screen and is at times almost too much to bear. Likewise, Bae communicates such a strong sense of stoic sacrifice in her character, Sun, whose martial arts skills seem the perfect outlet for her barely contained rage.
Sun’s skills come in handy for the rest of her cluster as well, and although the ability to kick some ass is perhaps the most obvious one for the others to “borrow” through their mental link, the other characters help each other in surprising ways that provide moments of triumphant delight. Will provides gun skills and police resources; Capheus acts as a sort of getaway driver; Nomi and Kala meet the tech and science needs of the group; Lito is a convincing liar and con man; and Wolfgang provides a brute strength and brutality many of his companions lack.
In essence, the creators appear to have presented, not a 12-episode season one (although Straczynski claims to have a five-season arc planned and a second season almost completely fleshed out), but a 12-hour movie. While this may seem daunting, and the slow pacing of the main conflict may lose some viewers, the end result is exciting in the possibilities it presents. Only Netflix, with its model of releasing entire seasons at once, could allow for “binge-watchers” to devour the epic scale of this drama. As Straczynski puts it, “It’s accurate to say that this show could not have been made without Netflix, but it is truer still to say that it could only have been made with them.”
And that’s what makes Sense8 so exciting, despite its methodical pace. The ability for acclaimed film directors like the Wachowskis to use the medium of television to fully tell a story they would’ve otherwise have had to cut down to a couple of hours for a theater audience is a rare opportunity. A smaller narrative could get bogged down in minutiae, and certainly some more poignant interactions can feel drawn out, especially when they’re dropped in the middle of a crisis. However, these moments are never wasted in Sense8, and one character’s backstory is always informative to another’s current problem.
The main conflict, though, is that which places these eight newly-connected strangers at the center of a long-standing exploitation of those who have supposedly evolved to become “sensates,” since this group is clearly not the first of its kind. It is difficult to tell who the villain is working with, and even the sensates’ guide, played by Naveen Andrews, is of questionable allegiance. Much of the underlying conspiracy is left undefined, but not frustratingly so. It’s apparent that future seasons may dig deeper into the history of this new species of human.
In that sense, season one could almost be seen as the exposition to a much larger tale. Sense8 is inarguably a character-driven drama, as it likely will continue to be if it is renewed, but the possibilities for building upon the foundation established in these first twelve episodes are certainly plentiful and exciting.
All episodes of season one become available on June 5 on Netflix.