TV, 2015, 4 stars
Created by: The Wachowskis, J. Michael Straczynski
First Run: 2015-2018 (2 seasons + series-wrapping telemovie)
Sense8 is a SciFi show that tells the story of eight interconnected humans, spread across the planet from different genders, races, sexualities and social classes, who experience a traumatic “birthing” event and grow a strange, psychic bond. They are sensates, people with the ability to share thoughts, skills, strengths, and emotions. Within their “cluster” of sensates, and with some selected powers assisting them outside it, they can inhabit each others’ bodies, visit and talk with each other, borrow each other’s skills in times of need, and become psychically and physically enhanced.
The series explores how they unravel this strange new world, and then use it to help them find and beat the enemies who want to destroy them for being a threat to the existing world order. If that isn’t a huge metaphor for the queer an trans experience I don’t know what is. They’re a family, but along the way they’re all coping with their own individual problems and realities. That’s the “easy to explain” bit.
There’s Will (Brian J. Smith) the Chicago Cop who is brave and kind, Nomi (Jamie Clayton), the lesbian trans hacktivist, Sun (Bae Doona) the Korean businesswoman with a wicked sideline in martial arts, Wolfgang (Max Riemalt) the ballsy German jewel thief and safe cracker, Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) the closeted Mexican action film star, Kala (Tina Desai) the Indian scientist, Capheus (Aml Ameen (S1)/Toby Onwumere (S2)) the optimistic, scrappy bus driver in Nairobi with a deep sense of honour, and Riley (Tuppence Middleton) the Icelandic DJ in London with emotional scars. Each has their own special gifts they learn to exploit.
No question, the Wachowskis (Bound, The Matrix) know how to make visually stunning movies and TV, and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) is the king of telling episodic stories at epic scale. This is no psychic Heroes ripoff. This is a big-budget, visionary, international fest of gender exploration, sexual and psychological angst, and a real poke at race-based colonialism, sucky parenting, and first world privilege.
It’s wide ranging, mindblowing in many senses of the word, and intricately plotted. Particularly in season one, it winks hard towards sci-fi, mystery, soap opera, and cop show genre tropes, and is unapologetically, shockingly violent at times. A helicopter even crashes at one point, and there’s random general mayhem. These are all things I adore.
On the other hand, I can completely understand why the series failed to find a broad audience, especially throughout the first 7-8 episodes of season 1. Sometimes people don’t want to be taught, they just want to watch TV. “Intricately plotted” can become convoluted. There’s schmaltzy soul-gazing that could have been given a tighter edit. Honestly, sometimes you just want them to get on with it.
As a good friend of mine said defensively, “It’s about the journey!”, however you do have to take your audience with you on the ride, and this ride is messy. A few of the characters are genuinely exciting from the outset, but some are slow burn, so you have to wait a while for those brilliant moments that pay off. What people often want is gun fights and action sequences. What Sense8 gives you is an exploration of the power of empathy. How do you even write that in a marketing tagline?
It’s not obviously scifi enough for the geeks, not action enough for the adrenaline junkies, and not fantasy enough for the Game of Thrones crowd. I’d consider it a psychic paranormal urban fantasy. Of those that the concept does manage to attract, there’s a chance they’ll be thrown by the unapologetic queerness and diversity. It’s just a damn shame that there’s just not enough of us queer, scifi-loving, weird-narrative nerds who get off on complex, multi-episodic story arcs to support an expensive show.
Once Sense8 kicks in though, it goes big. The showrunners let loose with their imaginations and their budgets, we gather all the kids together in one way or another and they’re on for the fight of their lives. Through it all the queer characters stay solidly queer, the straight characters flex their own sexual muscles, and we delve ever more deeply into their inner desires.
of course, there are some problems. Except for the characters I explicitly related to it was a struggle to initially connect with these characters. Perhaps one of the reasons was in the core concept - the physical distance between the protagonists also causes a disconnect between both them and the audience. By the time we start to bring them all together, plenty of the audience has already switched off, and this is not the kind of show where you can waltz in, randomly view a later episode and have the faintest clue what’s going down.
If you love to get sucked into high concept big narratives but you’re not initially sure about this one, stick with it. You don’t have to watch it like a film studies major, though you certainly can. There’s plenty of fodder for critique and analysis here. The Wachowskis are highly cerebral filmmakers. Case in point - there’s a psychosexual orgy in season one where there’s nothing subtle about the repressed sexuality and shifting male-female gaze. You could crack open your textbooks and peel back the layers on that one for days.
From a queer standpoint this is such a feast. Jamie Clayton and Freema Agyeman (who plays Nomi’s girlfriend Amanita) don’t hold back with their passion. I was floored by the graphic sex in episode one alone, but it’s the emotional connection that is so thrilling, and for once the writers are not afraid to explore the depths of it. It sets a new standard for queer visibility, and puts a lot of old school scifi to shame. You can practically feel Straczynski burying his Babylon 5 demons.
I was simply not expecting this level of queer, romantic authenticity within this inherently conservative, male-oriented genre. Of course it took trans filmmakers to bring it out, and in the documentary Disclosure Lilly Wachowski openly talks about Nomi being all her trans fantasies let out to play. Where are you going to find another action show where queer women stand up and face adversity in the most dire of circumstances, without either of them being killed off? Buffy? Nope. The 100? Try again. Now add a sensational trans character that is rich and complex. Jamie Clayton for sure knows how important an opportunity this was.
Sense8 might not have lasted long and that’s a ratings tragedy, but the show is uncompromising in its vision, and I respect that. On balance, the upsides well and truly outweigh the downs, and this is a journey that’s worth the time to take. Does it shock you that the creators of The Matrix and Babylon 5 would come together and make a strange, twisty, talk-heavy, epic show? Me neither, but I got much more than I expected.