Ever since they first beseiged the box-office in 1999, the Wachowskis have specialised in larger-than-life, bombastic images: Keanu Reeves ducking a bullet in beautiful slow-motion in The Matrix, the high-octane psychedelia of Speed Racer and the weird sight of a wolf-eared Channing Tatum flying through the air on jet boots in this year’s Jupiter Ascending.
Yet Sense8 begins not with a bang but with the image of Daryl Hannah writhing about on a fusty mattress. It’s the first in a collection of incongruous sequences which, like a mosaic, gradually come together to form a more intelligible image.
Sense8 is another coup for Netflix after the success of such envelope-pushing shows as Orange Is The New Black and Daredevil. It pairs the Wachowski siblings with J Michael Straczynski, the veteran of TV whose credits stretches from Masters Of The Universe to Murder She Wrote and onto genre favourite Babylon 5. Together, Straczynski and the Wachowskis have written and produced a sprawling and ambitious sci-fi drama – the Wachowskis have even rolled their sleeves up and directed five of the 12 episodes themselves.
The show’s high concept sees eight strangers scattered around different parts of the globe, but all united by a paranormal bond. Among them you’ll find sullen London DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton), Nairobi bus driver Caphaeus (Ami Ameen), buff Chicago cop Will (Brian J Smith), and Mexican actor Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre).
As the series begins, these “sensates” all share the same naggingly persistent vision: that of a ghostly blonde woman named Angel (Daryl Hannah). Gradually, however, the experiences of a character in one place begin to flow into those in another – meaning that Riley can see and hear what Will is up to in Chicago, for example, or that a safe cracker in Berlin (Wolfgang, played by Max Riemelt) will suddenly have a craving for the spicy cuisine served up at the wedding of Kala (Tina Desai) in India. The key to all this seems to be Jonas (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), a mysterious figure on the run from the police. What are the sensates, and where does their power come from? Is it military, alien, or are they just more evolved than us? For now, this remains a tantalising enigma.
When comparing Sense8 to the Wachowskis’ earlier work, the obvious conclusion to draw is that it’s similar to Cloud Atlas, their 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel. But Sense8 lacks the out-there gonzo wildness of Cloud Atlas – you certainly won’t see anything as bewildering as Tom Hanks in the role of a boozy Irish novelist, or Susan Sarandon as an old man with a robot eye. Instead, Sense8 unfolds with the measured pace and tonally earnest quality of a Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film like 21 Grams.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, and there’s something admirable about Sense8‘s desire to show us new characters and different cultures – even if the perspectives they provide are sometimes pock-marked with cliches. But Sense8 provides a slippery beast to get to grips with, particularly in its opening episode. Lost may have had its critics, but there’s a reason why it was such a hit: the first episode made light work of introducing a hefty ensemble by introducing its concept and setting through the eyes of one character, Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), before gradually adding the other players around him.
Sense8 doesn’t give us this luxury, choosing instead to fling us headlong from continent to continent before we’ve really got a handle on what’s going on. A wiser tactic might have been to take the Lost approach and flesh out one character first before taking us on the Sense8 global mystery tour.
In episode two, we’re introduced to the plight of Nomi (Jamie Clayton) – a transgender woman who’s effectively a prisoner in her hospital bed thanks to her harridan of a mother and a sinister physician. It rapidly becomes an engrossing plot thread, and could have provided a compelling first step into the series’ wider story.
As with any multi-strand narrative, some of the characters’ tales are also more interesting than others. I failed to muster much enthusiasm for Lito, the Spanish soap actor in Mexico whose reluctance to come out of the closet leads to an awkward entanglement with a clingy actress. Part of this is due to some dramatically inert writing, which sucks the life out of a few scenes even when the acting’s quite good. Tuppence Middleton’s perfectly engaging as Riley, her sad eyes hinting at an unhappy past we aren’t yet party to. But episode three sees her trapped in a pub with two painfully dull characters whose conversation doesn’t really go anywhere.
Far more interesting are the adventures of willowy Seoul businesswoman Sun (Doona Bae) who’s surprisingly handy in a fight, and the tribulations of bus driver Caphaeus, who’s trying to find some effective medicine for his AIDS-stricken mother.
It’s also fair to say that Sense8 is a series that benefits hugely from the modern phenomenon of binge-watching. Like a picture from on of those old Polaroid cameras, Sense8 takes time to develop; it isn’t always brilliant moment to moment, but after a couple of hours, you start to see the patterns forming in its web of locations and players.
By episode three, Sense8 really starts to reward your patience. Here, director Dan Glass seizes the baton from the Wachoskis – ironic, since this is installment marks the point where things really start to burst into life. Suddenly, the audacity of the show‘s concept becomes clear, as it’s hinted that the sensates can use their bond in ways we hadn’t previously anticipated. It all culminates in a clever and inventive action scene where you’re keenly invested in the fate of all involved.
The creative freedom afforded by Netflix has also allowed Sense8‘s creators to turn in a far more graphic, full-blooded and downright eccentric series that we’re generally used to seeing. And beneath the rumpy-pumpy, swearing and bursts of gore, and leaving aside the iffy accents and sometimes robotic exchanges, there’s something good-natured and beguiling about Sense8.
In terms of scale, it’s attempting something quite new; only time will tell how the Wachowskis will tie up all the tangled threads they’re dangling before us, but for now, we’re looking forward to see where they lead.
Sense8 is available now on Netflix.
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