tv review: sense8
Directorial duo Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) have teamed up with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski to create a radical new Netflix Original: Sense8. Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers: Will, Riley, Capheus, Sun, Lito, Kala, Wolfgang, and Nomi. In the aftermath of the violent and tragic death of a mysterious woman, they all experience what they perceive as dreams or visions. Each from a different culture and part of the world, this group of dynamic individuals suddenly discover that they’re mentally and emotionally connected “Sensates”. The Sensates slowly start to work in unison and to protect each other as another shadowy group begins hunting them down.
The concept of being a Sensate is, at times, a difficult one to comprehend, and if you were to watch an episode on its own you’d be unlikely to understand what was going on. But Sense8 is less interested in conforming to conventional notions of what a “good” story should be, and more interested in a don’t-hold-back exploration of identity politics, race and sexuality. Sense8 is a show dealing with issues of sexuality and gender in ways that defy traditional narrative understanding. It helps that the Wachowkis are extremely strong filmmakers, but it’s the international cast and setting that truly elevates the show.
The eight main characters are about as diverse as you can get in terms of location, culture, race, economic situation, sexual orientation, and occupation. The show explores the wholeness of being human without relying on nationality, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. This helps to give the narrative story the boost that it sometimes needs. The way the characters slip in and out of each other’s bodies and realities adds to the increasing volume of discussion about how gender is non-binary. Through this easy exchange of perspectives amongst the characters, sex scenes are also able cross particular boundaries that are exceptional to see on screen.
Relatedly, one of the eight characters in Sense8 is a trans woman – and she’s by far the most interesting character. If the series had to identify one character as the show’s main protagonist, it would no doubt be the richly conceived Nomi. Played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, Nomi is a badass hacktivist in a relationship with a woman named Amanita (Freema Agyeman). The couple’s experience at San Francisco Pride March takes up the bulk of the focus for the first few episodes. Nomi eventually finds herself in the hospital after having a vision and falling off a motorbike. We see her estranged mother at her bedside, insisting on calling her “Michael,” and forbidding her girlfriend from entering the room. Like the actress Jamie Clayton who portrays Nomi, co-creator Lana Wachowski is transgender. We don’t know to what extent this is a meditation from the co-creator on her own experience, but the fact that Nomi is there representing part of the scope of humanity is a brilliant step forward. Another of the eight is a gay man named Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a Spanish celebrity living in Mexico City. Lito is showily dating a woman to hide the fact that he’s living with his boyfriend (Alfonso Herrera). The show explores how his own inner conflict is fuelled by his career in playing an uber-macho Spanish sex symbol on screen.
The remaining six main characters also all have, in one way or another, bifurcated lives. Sun (Bae Doona), for example, is a seemingly respectable Korean businesswoman who turns out to be a rising star in the underground mixed martial arts subculture. Kala (Tina Desai) is a university-educated woman from Mumbai about to marry a fabulously wealthy man – whom she doesn’t actually love. Will (Brian J. Smith) is a Chicago cop, following in the footsteps of his father. The enigmatic Riley (Tuppence Middleton) received my affection by seasons’ end: her tale of woe becomes the most compelling of the group and her on-screen pain is palpable to the viewer. Each character seriously tugged at my heartstrings at one point or another in the season.
Sense8 is a character-driven drama. As their own individual stories unfold and reach different kinds of resolutions, the links between the Sensates become even stronger. The characters find that they occupy a dazzling, chaotic world full of flawed people who will inspire you and even – when you least expect it – save you. The show a striking blend of sprawling and messy ideas matched with small moments and fine details that makes it an interesting and beautiful show. If the Wachowskis set themselves the task of making a show that was emotionally mature, sexually fluid and that explored faith, power and identity, then they should give themselves a gold star.