Review by Katie Grimes
Sense8 (2015-). Netflix series. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski. Starring Aml Ameen, Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Tuppence Middleton, Max Riemelt, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Brian J. Smith, and Tena Desae.
A woman dressed in white lies stricken, trembling on the stone floor of a deserted cathedral. A man suddenly appears by her side and takes her into his arms. She convulses, lets out a loud cry, and, in a flash, is mentally transported from the empty church. Her vision shows the everyday lives of eight people across the globe; each, in disbelief, sees her as she views them. Jerked back to her physical reality, she reaches behind her for a gun. A second man, menacing, abruptly appears. In a sickly sweet voice, he whispers, “Oh come now, my dear. How many times have you made that threat? And we both know you won’t do it.” She places the pistol between her teeth. And pulls the trigger.
This opening scene from Sense8 — with it’s baffling dialogue, shocking imagery, colorful scenery, and suspenseful music — had me hooked immediately. Despite my initial confusion, I continued with the series and was rewarded with twelve of the most exhilarating episodes of television I’ve ever experienced. A blend of science-fiction, action, suspense, and romance, Sense8 not only provides gripping chase scenes, thrilling fight sequences, and the occasional comic moment, but also includes a refreshingly diverse cast and feminist script.
Sense8 tells the story of eight individuals from across the world who are connected by a unique mental bond; each “sensate” is able to tap into the emotions, knowledge, language, and abilities of the other, and they can all communicate despite any vast geographical distance that may separate their physical bodies. What starts out as a confusing series of events in which the sensates abruptly become aware of their connection quickly transforms into a dire fight for survival. These eight strangers, aided by a more experienced sensate, Jonas (Naveen Andrews), must work together to protect each other from an enigmatic stranger, Whispers, who seeks to capture them. The entire series is shrouded in a veil of mystery that keeps audiences guessing: Who is Whispers? Why does he want to capture the sensates? Who can the group trust?
Siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas) are hardly inexperienced when it comes to writing and directing science-fiction and clearly profit from their partnership with J. Straczynski, the creator of sci-fi series Babylon 5. With Sense8, the trio sought to create something new to television, something that would challenge the viewer and speak to the universality of the human condition. In an interview with The Independent, Straczynski says that their theory going into the project was that “the audience is generally smarter…than most people seem to give them credit for being.” He explains: “You can either assume they’re not terribly bright and come up with something very simplistic, or assume they’re willing to get on the boat right next to you and go for something with a lot of meat and meaning and complexity.” By choosing to believe the latter, these sci-fi writers have transcended the boundaries of their genre to produce a work that refuses to play by the rules, in more ways than one.
One of the most progressive aspects of the series is its diverse cast. Of the eight sensates, four are women and four are men. Each one is from a different part of the world, and the series is shot on-site in Berlin, San Francisco, Seoul, Nairobi, London, Chicago, Mexico City, and Mumbai. Half of the sensates are people of color, two are gay, and one is trans. While Hollywood continues to insist upon action film with a focus on the white, cis, heterosexual males (Ant-man might be worth a watch if it didn’t fit this trope to a tee), Sense8 looks past these overdone stories; instead, it gives audiences the rich diversity of race, gender, sexuality, and perspective that they crave. Not only is the series’ representation on point, but it also offers a positive portrayal of not just one, but two committed homosexual relationships, as well as a complex portrait of a transgender woman played by a trans actress (Jamie Clayton). Lana, herself a transgender woman (see her acceptance speech of the 2012 HRC Visibility Award), gives the character a unique authenticity.
I mentioned earlier that Sense8 was one of the most exhilarating television series I’ve ever seen — it is also one of the most feminist. The feminism starts with balanced representation and continues with the destruction of gender stereotypes. Women are allowed to be powerful without question: Sun is given some of the most intense fight sequences, Nomi refuses to let society define her, Riley somehow survives tragedy after tragedy. Men are allowed to show strong emotion: Capheus demonstrates deep devotion for his mother, Lito cries when he and his lover separate, Will follows his heart not his head. Female characters are not unnecessarily sexualized and objectified: they are complex, strong, and interesting. One of my personal pet peeves is the removal of menstruation — a key part of life for many women — from television and film. Not so in Sense8. In one episode, we see Sun changing a tampon and working silently through period cramps; Lito, in connection with Sun, feels her pain and practically crashes his car. The best part about these feminist elements is their simplicity; instead of drawing attention from the plot, they are incorporated with the confident assumption that this is the way sci-fi action should be written.
Netflix is often regarded as the next frontier for television: filmmakers and writers are given creative freedom rarely offered by traditional programming. And in Sense8, we can see the benefits of this freedom. If you can power through the confusion of the first few episodes and some graphic content, you will quickly become a fan. The Wachowskis have expertly crafted a story that’s both unique and heart-stopping — therefore, it’s no surprise that Sense8 is returning to Netflix for a second season.
Sense8 is bold. It’s wildly different. And you will not be disappointed.
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