For better or worse, Sense8 is already drawing comparisons with Heroes and Lost. Its concept—eight people across the world, suddenly linked by telepathic “sensate” visions—is the kind of story the Wachowskis have been itching to tell for years.
The brother and sister duo who brought us The Matrix trilogy and Jupiter Ascending joined forces with J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) for their TV debut, combining Straczynski’s skill for long-form storytelling with the their desire to push beyond the conservatism of blockbuster filmmaking. The result is something surprisingly sincere, although not as weird and grandiose as I’d hope. (They’re making the most of their Netflix-rated freedom, though. Episode 1 sees Doctor Who star Freema Agyeman wield a lube-dripping strap-on; something you don’t see on network TV.)
As a weekly episodic TV series, Sense8 probably wouldn’t work. The first episode is weighed down by the burden of introducing eight separate settings, and by episode three (the last released to critics) there’s still no sign of the sensate-hunting assassins mentioned in the show’s plot summary. Still, I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt thanks to Netflix’s binge-watch format. Much as it took Daredevil a few episodes to find its feet, Sense8‘s exciting third episode builds on the occasionally clumsy scene-setting of the first two installments.
None of us were ever as strong as you. pic.twitter.com/tDhPSleiPU
— Sense8 (@sense8) May 25, 2015
Disappointingly for anyone who loved the aesthetic of the Wachowskis’ film work, Sense8 often looks like a show from the early 2000s—even including details like the typeface and cinematography of the opening credits. In that sense the comparisons with Heroes are all too apt, although Sense8‘s subject-matter is far more innovative and fresh.
Straczynski and the Wachowskis conceived Sense8 as a way to explore issues of sexuality, race, and inequality within the framework of a mainstream genre show. As well as being a fun sci-fi gimmick, the sensate idea forces a diverse cast to walk a mile in each other’s shoes: a Chicago cop waking up to the sound of music in London, or a Korean businesswoman briefly lending her kickboxing skills to a bus driver in Nairobi. Oh, and there’s going to be at least one “psychic orgy.”
Juggling eight disparate character arcs is no easy task, and while Sense8 doesn’t quite fall back on cultural stereotypes, most of its lead characters slot into a familiar genre trope. The brooding Mexican TV star is caught in a tumultuous triangle between his secret boyfriend and fake celebrity girlfriend. The Indian pharmacist joins her fiancé in a choreographed Bollywood lip-sync number. The German safe-cracker tempts fate by stealing a score from his criminal rival. At first this overt genre-savviness feels a little too on-the-nose, but it slowly resolves itself into something more complex as the characters develop.
The true standout of the first few episodes is Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a transgender blogger and former hacktivist whose passionate and supportive relationship with her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) is too good to last. The course of true love never runs smooth in the world of TV drama, so it comes as no surprise when the happy couple are torn asunder after Nomi is admitted to hospital.
In a compellingly nightmarish scenario, Nomi’s transphobic mother takes charge of her medical decisions and blocks Amanita from visiting. It’s all tied up in the sensate concept (Nomi’s newfound powers are seen as evidence of a brain tumor), but reflects the hell many trans people suffer when navigating the medical care system.
Three episodes in, I’m interested enough to keep watching based on Nomi’s storyline alone, along with intriguing hints of things to come for Sun (Bae Doona’s Korean businesswoman) and Lito (the closeted Mexican TV hunk.) Still, viewers should not be expected to wait three episodes to decide if a show is worth watching.
Sense8‘s commitment to a diverse cast and an original premise is admirable—especially compared to Daredevil, which was lavished with praise for competently executing a well-trod cliché. However, Sense8‘s potential won’t stop people from switching off if the story takes too long to develop. If the pace doesn’t pick up over the next couple of episodes, its audience may be limited to die-hard Wachowski fans.
Photo via Sense8/Twitter