I’ll get this out of the way first: In order to enjoy Sense8 you are going to need to be patient with it through the first few episodes. But if you can be patient with it, it might just become one of your favorite shows like it did for me. Also, I might as well mention here that there may be some spoilers to follow, but I’ll keep them to an absolute minimum.
Sense8 is a Netflix original series produced, written, and mostly directed by The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas). It follows eight people of all different backgrounds–an Indian pharmacist, an American cop, a German thief, an American hacker, a Mexican actor, a Korean businesswoman/bare-knuckle boxer, a Kenyan bus driver, and an Icelandic DJ–who have been awakened to some kind of new telepathic link between one another and they become what are known as “sensates.” This link allows them to “visit” and “share” with one another. “Visiting” allows the sensates to see and hear one another as if they were standing right next to each other. “Sharing” allows them to see and hear through the other’s eyes and share their knowledge (such as when the Mexican actor takes over the American cop’s body in order to use his charms to seduce a woman for information). I don’t want to give away any more than that, because much of the series (but namely the first 3-4 episodes) revolves around a Lost-style web of mysteries that unravel all of this information and more.
The pacing of the show did/does still give me some pause. I really probably would have given up on this show around episode 2 if I didn’t intend to write a review for it. In fact, a couple of my friends did end up giving it up around then. But by the time I hit the last ten minutes of episode 3, I loved it. I think I might have done an actual fist pump while sitting alone in my room. But with the episode run-time being approximately one hour, should the audience really be expected to sit through the run-time of Cloud Atlas before the show gets interesting?
Visual media has taken a huge turn since the recent popularity boom of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu. Netflix-original shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, and Arrested Development have completely changed the way we view TV. Sure, there are still successful shows that follow the old format of watch an episode now, we leave you with a cliffhanger, and you come back and watch next week (see all of HBO’s successes). But streaming series like those I mentioned above where the entire season is released at the same time are seeing equal critical and popular recognition with ratings-destroying shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective.
In fact, Arrested Development is a great example of someone using this new format to its full potential and asking a longer attention-span from the viewers. If Arrested Development didn’t already have the (well-deserved) rabid fanbase that it did from the first three seasons, how many people would have stuck around to find out how all of those episodic pieces of Season 4 fit together? It also helped that Arrested Development is a comedy with some of the best comedic writing around, so even if you weren’t involved in the characters or their stories, you at least got some great one-liners.
In a similar vein, The Wachowskis have build up a lot of faith and goodwill (and, to be fair, a decent amount of criticism and violent nerd hatred) with their work in the past. The Matrix was obviously groundbreaking (and the two sequels are where most of that hatred comes from), and The Animatrix was cool as hell. V for Vendetta was great. Of course, there’s their cult classic, Bound. Side by Side got a 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Even Speed Racer was entertaining, and I am not a fan of the anime at all (although maybe people who liked the anime would disagree).
With Sense8, The Wachowskis make an attempt to use this new media to its full potential and, although there are some hiccups, I think they mostly succeeded.
The first thing you will probably notice about Sense8 is that it doesn’t pull any punches. From the suicide in the teaser to the two bear guys sensually sharing an ice cream in the opening credits to the graphic girl on guy sex scene to the rainbow strap-on tossed to the floor after the graphic girl on girl sex scene (hello again, Bound), even the first episode is in-your-face. Not to mention the head-on (pun absolutely intended) shots of childbirth in the later episodes. It’s colorful when it needs to be and grey when in the moodier scenes. The Wachowskis bring their signature visual-candy style to this while remaining true to what they want to show the viewer. The sensates would probably be described by modern psychology as manic depressive and/or schizophrenic–they break down crying or appear to have “hallucinations” for what would seem like no reason to an outside observer–and the series does a great job of keeping the viewer off balance and putting us into that head space.
Of course, being manic also means there are some really hilarious and light-hearted moments in the middle of its heavy drama. For example, two of the sensates fall in love and start kissing while “visiting,” when one of their friends walks in and sees one of them just tonguing the air like a 12-year-old kid practice kissing. Another great light-hearted (and unexpected) moment is the Bollywood dance number in episode two. My personal favorite would probably be the sub-plot where the Korean woman gets her period and the Mexican actor ends up being hormonal right along with her.
The show is very sensual as well. As I stated above, there are numerous graphic sex scenes. And anyone who has seen Bound knows that The Wachowskis know how to shoot a great sex scene. Of all the example I could give, the greatest one would have to be the orgy that ends up happening between all of the sensates that is scored amazingly by the sexy/cool of “Demons” by Fatboy Slim ft. Macy Gray.
And here again we have a great comedic moment as the American cop reaches climax while doing situps alone in the gym.
Speaking of the music, The Wachowskis have again hit it out of the park with this shows soundtrack. Much of the suspenseful music–as well as the theme music– has a House of Cards vibe to it. Then Sense8 accentuates big moments with popular music like the song mentioned above and the classic 90s counterculture anthem “Whats Up” by 4 Non Blondes; “Perfect soundtrack for a lobotomy,” according to one of the characters in the show.
Sense8 is not without it faults. There are several things that just don’t make sense in the world The Wachowskis set up (which I won’t get into here because they involve loads of spoilers). The dialogue and events at times seem a little unnatural and too expositional; like the writers shoehorned it in later because they realized they needed it for what happens next to make any kind of sense. And, as I mentioned earlier, the pacing is experimental, and I’m still not sure the experiment entirely succeeded, as I think a lot of people will be turned off by the slow start.
Finally, I want to touch on the clear message of love and acceptance The Wachowskis tied into Sense8. As you’ve probably figured out by now, this is not a show for people who feel icky at the sight of two dudes kissing (in fact, Netflix lists one of its categories as “Gay and Lesbian TV Shows”). Every combination of sex is had (and shown) in this series. Don’t let me lead you to believe it’s pornographic–because it’s not, by most definitions–but, as I stated before, no punches are pulled. The opening credits show several scenes of Pride parades juxtaposed against cultural celebrations of all kinds. One of the main characters is gay but can’t come out because he’s afraid it will destroy his career. Another is a trans woman who is held in a hospital against her will and nearly lobotomized. The latter is especially poignant, considering Lana Wachowski’s trans status. The viewer can almost feel her bleeding onto the page. Incidentally, this message hit home for me as well, as two good friends of mine who are trans had to leave the state in order to be treated like adult human beings (Hoo-Hoo-Hoosiers!).
What’s great about Sense8 is that they managed to weave this message into a main theme of the show, which is about human beings connecting beyond the boundaries of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any of the other things that normally divide us as a species.
I encourage you to give Sense8 a chance. I have now watched the series in its entirety at least three times now, and with every viewing I find something new to love about it.
Here’s the official trailer for the show. Please take a second below to let us know your thoughts on Sense8. What did you think of The Wachowskis exploration of the streaming series format?