I binged watched Sense8 when I realised it was out. I finished the whole series in two days. I saw the first six episodes and then fainted, woke up, and then watched the last six.
The concept is pretty compelling and intriguing. Eight people from around the world find themselves connected and can see each other and feel each other and talk to each other even if they are from different countries. As they explore and discover this extraordinary connection, they discover that there are forces out there that are after them and they don’t know why.
Aside from the teaser trailers that I’ve seen, I admire the Wachowski siblings for trying to do something original and new. I will always be grateful to them for doing a very good job with the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas. That book is probably my favourite book of all time, and I don’t think anyone would have been able to manage to tell that story but the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer chose to adapt the material into a film and I was so satisfied with the result. I thought it was beautiful and I was crying at the right spots and they were able to find a narrative structure that works on film that had to deviate from the book and they made it work. For that alone, I am giving them so much leeway that I don’t even mind that I did not enjoy Jupiter Ascending at all. I’m happy that they went and did an original science fiction adventure movie rather than remake an old one or grab from another comic book.
Sense8 is an original and fresh idea and it’s great to have something like this on television. It’s nice that people are writing and producing material directly for television and not just mining popular books or graphic novels just to ensure a sort of hit.
Unfortunately, Sense8 is a mixed bag. It’s a 12-episode television series and I felt that the pacing is all wrong. I don’t know if the Wachowskis have much television experience but I know J. Michael Straczynski does and there was a dragging pace to the show.
I think the problem is the marketing. The teasers and trailer reveals that these eight people are connected in some way and that people like them are being hunted down. That much is clear coming into the show. It sort of gave me the idea that I was watching a science fiction action and adventure with a lot of suspense and that’s not the case. That’s not what Sense8 is about.
The story unfolds very slowly. It begins dramatic enough but it spends the next six episodes exploring each of the eight characters’ lives and backstory while slowly showing how their connection works. There are these spurts of the conspiracy that’s against them and the hints of danger, but the major focus of the show, really, is each person’s personal journey. They each have a story and while they are sometimes helped (or made even more complicated) by the presence of each other, the show sticks to developing these characters first.
It took me a long time, maybe until episode seven before I started to realise that I was expecting a different kind of show and I wasn’t taking the show in its own terms. I wasn’t that interested with each character’s drama, I wanted to know more about the science fiction aspect, and I wanted to see more of the hunting of them and the action.
Because there are action sequences and they are quite good. One character, Will (played wonderfully by Brian J. Smith), is a cop in Chicago. Another character, Sun Bak (played excellently by Doona Bae from Cloud Atlas), trained extensively as a martial artist as she has a lot of anger issues. Another character, Wolfgang (played by Max Riemelt), is a sort of thief and gangster from Germany. They all have really extensive fight sequences that are littered throughout the show and the moment these scenes come up, the show picks up and gets really thrilling.
And what makes it more thrilling is that a lot of these action sequences involve another character in another part of the world. So it sort of highlights the science fiction aspect of the show, which I find most interesting, but it comes sporadically.
The problem is that it doesn’t sustain this energy and it goes back to an incredible amount of storytelling and it creates this start-stop feeling. Just when you are about to know something about what’s going on and who they are and what this connection is about, they move off to another personal story that doesn’t involve the extraordinary aspects of the story or the conspiracy theory and the danger.
What makes this structure bearable is that the actors are really good. Aside from the ones mentioned above (and a re-mention of Doona Bae because I love her), there is also Nomi (played by Jamie Clayton), a political blogger in San Francisco who lives with her girlfriend Amanita (played by Freema Agyeman); Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a Spanish/Mexican superstar actor in Mexico; Kala (played by Tina Desai), an Indian scientist who is about to get married; Riley (played by Tuppence Middleston), a DJ from Iceland, living in London; and Capheus/Van Damme (played by Aml Ameen), a young man in Kenya who drives a bus and cares for his sick mother.
All of them are really good at portraying their characters and can drag you into their character’s stories but their individual stories are competing against each other and that is eight lives in a one hour show and compounded with the fact that there is this extraordinary thing happening to them, it slows down the story-telling quite a bit. But when they start to explore their extraordinary connection, their responses, their facial expressions are priceless. It’s so exactly how you would imagine it.
I would like to say, though, that there is a satisfying conclusion and they start to catch up with the conspiracy/hunted aspect of the narrative somewhere down the line in episode nine and the connections are used more often after episode seven or eight. There are a couple of sequences that have all of them relating to each other and to what they are experiencing and these moments are incredible and I wanted more of that. Everything finally comes together, somewhat, in the final episode and it’s very satisfying and enjoyable and it makes things more exciting for the second season, if they choose to continue it. The backstories have been laid out, their personal demons have more or less been resolved, and we can go on a new season fully exploring their connection, and that would be great.
It makes watching the first season a little challenging but if this is just the set up to something bigger in the coming seasons, then I cannot wait.
What I do love about this show is how it manages to tell a global story and talk about different cultures and worlds and even issues. There are two significant gay stories in the show that really addresses important issues concerning the LGBT movement as there are stories about family relationships that are explored in the parallel lives of these eight characters and how their culture and geography affects each one’s attitude or experience to the same topics.
On paper, Sense8 is everything I love about a good science fiction narrative. I just wished I saw it without having known anything about it. I think I would have enjoyed it more because I wasn’t expecting to see something else. I really appreciate the way it tackles sensitive issues, create parallel storylines and explore drama through parallelisms, and indirectly compare cultures and worlds. In that aspect, it was really, really wonderful.
The script could use a little help. There were a lot of bits of dialogue that came off as cheesy and there was a whole lot of sex and nudity. I guess I’m just so assaulted by television’s overuse of nudity and sex that it has made me very uncomfortable. I am okay with nudity and sex if it has something to do with the story but if it doesn’t, don’t do it, please. And a sex scene is fine, but cut the scene when the point has been made. Sometimes, they tend to linger in the scene just a little too long.
Overall, though, I’m glad I saw Sense8 and I hope there is a second season with the same cast and their story is evolved further. I would like to know more about this world and these characters. I’ll be ready now to watch it with fresh eyes and to take it on its own terms and not on my own expectations.
And just as I finish this post and publish it, I go and read Why Sense8 Season 1 is Netflix’s Most Baffling Series Yet on IndieWire and the writer, Liz Shannon Miller, says everything that I want to say and says it better. I feel so useless now. I feel so irrelevant. Liz Shannon Miller got everything that I was feeling about the show. Damn.