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For Netflix’s ambitious drama Sense8, the path to entry — and the ability to truly appreciate what comes after — is deceptively simple. You have to give in to it. You have to go with it. Resistance likely creates a non-starter situation where the viewer passes and moves on to the seemingly endless number of other Netflix offerings (or that of the wider TV world, of course).
But there are distinct pleasures in not trying to make sense of Sense8. For starters, it’s one of the most lushly beautiful, cinematic series on television, shot entirely on location around the globe. Secondly, it has a diverse cast that over time becomes like an odd family. It incorporates nudity and sex into its larger vision of blended, guiltless, joy-filled pansexuality (and who doesn’t like nudity and sex on TV, especially when it’s wrapped up in a vivid global travel brochure?). And, finally, when the larger mythology begins to take hazy shape, your investment in the story’s outcome is already there because you opted in without questions.
Air date: May 05, 2017
And, like many Netflix offerings, Sense8 is a drama that almost begs to be binged. It exists on Netflix in large part because few other entities could understand what the drama wanted to be, did not dare to roll the dice on what amounts to a very long lead-up and couldn’t realistically support the budget for shooting around the globe. In its own way, Sense8 is an exclamation point on what separates Netflix from others: a vast budget, an international audience, a belief that the streaming audience eventually will find and a need to have lots of content from buzzy creators — in this instance, Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas).
As a title, Sense8 is a play on the word “sensate” and the eight “sensates” in the series who have an extraordinary connection to each other despite living around the globe and — prior to all the explanation in the first 12 episodes — never having met each other. These diverse people are connected mentally and, in a way too difficult to describe, physically. Season one is essentially a 12-hour introduction to their backstory, how they are connected and what their actual “powers” are, although that last bit still remains dubious and confusing.
What’s unique (and also confusing) about their situation is that they can often “sense” each other and then appear out of thin air in Germany via, for instance, India. The more this neat little visual trick occurs — which is constantly — the less there’s a need to explain it, hence the aforementioned need to just go with it. If there’s a fight in Nairobi and one of the sensates needs the martial arts expertise of one of the others from Korea, that person just appears. And fights. And it’s exciting if not understandable by any conventional rules of narrative. In Sense8, you need to let go of your logic, embrace your emotions and just go with it — a lot.
Season two of the series also has a sly understanding of this knock against it and addresses the issue. In one scene, Kala (Tina Desai), a pharmacist from India, finds herself sitting in a Korean prison cell with Sun (Doona Bae), the bad-ass businesswoman/martial artist. “I don’t know why I’m here,” Kala says. Sun smiles and says, “I think we all know how this works by now.” And Kala responds: “Do we? It works very inconsistently for me.”
If you’re new to Sense8, you definitely need to start at the beginning in season one. And if you watched that and didn’t know that season two started with a two-hour Christmas special, well, reverse course and definitely watch that first.
As a brief refresher, the six other “sensates” are Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), the gay Mexican action movie star who was outed and is suffering the homophobic backlash in his country; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the German safe-cracker who is in love with Kala but, since he can’t really have her, settles for the constant attention of other women; Capheus (Toby Onwumere, who replaces Aml Ameen), the Nairobi-based bus driver; Nomi (Jamie Clayton), the trans “hacktivist” from San Francisco; and Will (Brian J. Smith), the Chicago cop and love interest to Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a DJ from Iceland.
These eight disparate people are the “cluster” (or children) of Angelica (Daryl Hannah), who unwittingly put them in danger by working with another sensate who turned against his own people, devilishly known as “Whispers” (Terrence Mann); they are guided in their quest to defeat Whispers by Jonas (Naveen Andrews), a sensate who was in love with Angelica.
That’s the easy-to-understand part.
And yes, even though they are all from the same cluster and are “children” of Angelica, they were born to real parents, so there’s not an incest thing going on. They are just a loving group of connected people from around the globe who move in and out of each others’ lives, mostly in times of need (which is always), trying to understand what is happening to them and what powers they have — and sometimes have orgies or sing and dance together in a blatant attempt to manipulate your heartstrings. Again, you just have to go with it. They all look fantastic without clothes.
What keeps Sense8 from becoming one big silly mess? Nothing if you’re not all-in. But if you’re open to the vibe that the Wachowskis and co-creator and co-writer J. Michael Straczynski are shooting for — an exploration of connected, empathetic souls who are battling back against a larger force out to crush them (think, perhaps, X-Men with a whole lot more nudity and sex) because they have special powers — you may be interested in how the series plays intelligently with sexuality, gender, oppression and identity, among other issues.
In many ways, Sense8 indeed is the most cutting-edge exploration of sex and love on television, wrapped in a really confusing origin story that eventually coalesces to allow for an Us vs. Them storyline, which can be used as an overarching metaphor for the ideas underneath. Sense8 has been lauded for its positive portrayal of LGBT characters, but more than anything is just sex-positive and preaches themes of acceptance and inclusion in most of its storylines.
Yet, if the audience didn’t like or couldn’t relate to the characters, this series wouldn’t work. While Lana Wachowski (who co-writes and directs most of the season two episodes while sister Lilly is taking a break) and Straczynski have finally created enough background stories to move more forcefully toward the battle against Whispers and his shadowy group, mythology and forward momentum remain secondary to character development. Once invested in Sense8, you’ll likely find what happens to these interconnected characters as a group more intriguing than what they face outside of their lives. There’s a lightness of being to Sense8 that’s the real attraction here. It has done a wonderful job of expanding out from its core cast to introduce other characters (like Nomi’s girlfriend Amanita, played by Freema Agyeman). If season two seems to be explaining more of the broader fight, that’s fine as well. But watching these people playing together and swimming in the senses is the real driver.
Sense8 is more visual feast and emotional touchstone than it is heavyweight story or smart puzzle. For some, it will be a guilty pleasure, but that might be selling short the important “love is love” message it espouses. Sense8 is probably better described as a series you experience more than understand, and a few early episodes from season one (if you haven’t seen it yet) should be enough to let you know if that’s a trip you want to take or not.
Cast: Naveen Andrews, Daryl Hannah, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Terrence Mann Tina Desai, Max Riemelt, Tuppence Middleton, Brian J. Smith, Toby Onwumere, Freema Agyeman, Alfonso Herrera, Max Mauff, Erendira Ibarra
Created by: Lana and Lilly Wachowski, J. Michael Straczynski
Written by: Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by: Lana Wachowski
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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