As an expansive, genre-bending drama from the creators of The Matrix and Babylon 5, Sense8 is catnip for a certain breed of sci-fi/speculative fiction fan. But with reviews running the gamut from downright terrible (“like watching an art-house project in Klingon“) to baffled-yet-positive (“either madness, genius or both“), audiences are clearly finding it difficult to decide whether this show is any good—even after they’ve watched every single episode.
So, should you be watching Sense8? We’ve examined a few of its main selling points (and downsides) to help you decide.
Is Sense8 like The Matrix?
Short answer: No. Obviously.
While Sense8 is a team effort, the Wachowskis have more brand recognition than J. Michael Straczynski, leading people to draw comparisons with their better-known movie projects. Wachowski fans will recognize Sense8‘s quasi-spiritual tone, but may be surprised by the absence of glitzy special effects. This is a story about seemingly normal people, told without the aid of visible CGI and, for the most part, without big action sequences.
There are a fair few fight scenes, but it’s pointless to compare them to the Wachowskis’ big-screen endeavors because this isn’t an action show. It’s a sci-fi/drama series with a few episodes directed by action filmmakers, meaning that while the fight scenes are skillfully shot, they’re more about human conflicts than big-budget stunts and explosions.
Is it super weird?
Sense8‘s promo interviews promised a lot of things you don’t typically see in mainstream US TV: Bollywood dance sequences, live birth scenes, psychic orgies. And just to be clear, it totally delivers. Those scenes just don’t seem so weird in context, because Sense8 shares more tonal similarities with mid-2000s event dramas like Lost than it does with the gleeful nonsense of Jupiter Ascending.
As it turns out, the most unusual thing about Sense8 isn’t a gimmick like filming “babies coming out of vaginas,” but its progressive attitude toward queer representation. Instead of being the high-octane (and potentially ridiculous) show we expected before it aired, Sense8 is a relatable drama with nuanced portrayals of queer characters in multiple lead roles. (Its treatment of race is a little more dicey, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)
Is it slow?
Some people have complained about Sense8‘s gradual pace, with the action speeding up toward the end of the series. I wouldn’t describe Sense8 as “slow,” but the 12-episode season does feel like the prologue of a longer story. We know from the plot summary that we’re watching a show about eight people who form a telepathic link across the world, but this idea isn’t properly explored for several episodes.
Instead, a lot of time is spent developing each character’s personal arc: a German criminal stealing diamonds from a rival thief, a closeted Spanish actor concealing his boyfriend from the press, a Korean businesswoman deciding whether to take the fall for her brother’s white-collar crimes. The cluster of eight “sensates” share plenty of emotional experiences through their psychic link, but it takes a while for them to get proactive about pooling their resources.
In earlier episodes, this pace can be frustrating. The individual arcs are interesting in their own right, but Sense8‘s writers put too much trust in their audience sticking around before the fantasy elements truly kick in. Plus, you can’t help but wonder if things would go a lot faster if the sensates just googled each other.
Fortunately, the sensate concept does eventually come into its own. It’s exciting to see one character borrow another’s skills from the other side of the world, but it’s equally satisfying to see them give each other emotional support. The first season focuses more on the sensates learning to empathize and work together, while the more traditional adventure plot—a mysterious enemy trying to kidnap sensates for vivisection—gets comparatively little screentime.
Compared to the instantaneous popularity of Netflix‘s Daredevil or Orange is The New Black—both of which are easier to pick up and binge-watch—Sense8 seems destined for cult status rather than magazine cover story success.
It may be flawed and doesn’t quite live up to its high ambitions. Yet all the same, I’m hoping for a second season. By the finale I was hopelessly attached to every one of the main characters, to their love stories and their adorable friendships and their burgeoning ability to turn everyday skills into a superhero team-up. Not to mention the fact that the season ends just as the show is turning into a full-blown thriller, making good on its premise during the very last handful of scenes.
Photos via Sense8/Netflix | Remix by Jason Reed