What would happen if psychic powers weren’t quite what we thought they were? What if it wasn’t about making objects float, but information? Sense8 tackles these ideas, and the expanding evolution of humanity in its first season.
WE HAVE MORE THAN ONE BIRTH IN OUR LIVES
Eight strangers living around the world watch as a woman kills herself. Then, their lives start to become strange.
A sensate is someone who can connect with other sensates telepathically by one of two ways: either by being a member of their individual cluster, or by looking another sensate in the eye. And when they do, they have access to all of that sensate’s skills and abilities. The greatest power of these comes from the cluster, or the group of eight, who are connected together.
Sense8 is about a cluster that has recently been “born,” or had their powers awakened, and the struggles they go through trying to understand this new gift and the dangers that come with it. Because there is someone out there hunting the sensates, and they need to avoid being caught while trying to figure out what is going on. If they are to survive, they will have to work together.
Trying to break down a series to its essence for a summary tends to make it sound less cool, and really, the beauty of Sense8 comes in the personal stories of the eight main characters of the new sensate cluster. A majority of the characters eventually have elements of their story that obviously are tying into a larger plot, and possibly why they are being hunted, but it is the character pieces that I found loving so much about this.
Because the show is not just the eight main characters, but the people they love, or hate, who are in their lives. And trying to hold onto the semblance of one’s life while finding themselves suddenly in other places around the world isn’t easy.
Both the Wachowskis and Straczynski are known for the incredibly detailed worlds that they create. Here, since this is science fiction one minute into the future, this is our world and we know it. The detail comes in their research for accuracy in the cultures the sensates come from, and the well-roundedness of the characters themselves.
Every character here has understandable motivations, whether or not I ended up liking them. Everyone seemed real, no one was a caricature, and I appreciated this on so many levels. Sense8 took a great risk by involving so many minorities, but one that I believe paid off spectacularly. We need to see more variety in the media we consume, both to better understand the world around us, but for everyone to get a chance to be represented in the media.
There is no token minority here, and Straczynski and the Wachowskis laughing at such a thing in this show. There may be only one person from each city that we visit in the cluster, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. There are two sensates in the cluster who are LGBTQ, but they are not the only ones we see.
I’ve been watching Babylon 5 recently, so it’s fresh in my mind, but this pushing the boundaries and showing all of humanity and not just a small sliver is nothing new for Straczynski. He was pushing the boundaries back in the 90s as far as they would go, and in rewatching it now it is still groundbreaking in representation. Given the freedom that Netflix offers, I feel like he was able to take it to the next level. I’ll admit I’m not as familiar with the Wachowskis’ work that’s not The Matrix, but I know that Straczynski didn’t do this all himself.
My favorite aspect about this show might also be it’s biggest weakness for some – it was confusing at first going back and forth between so many different settings and characters. But I was surprised at how fast I became used to it, and soon it wasn’t hard to follow at all.
The best part of the eight main characters, however, is their ability to find courage in themselves to accomplish things that need to be done. Because, of course, there are times when they can get help from the others in their cluster, but the decision to put one foot in front of the other and take on difficult situations became their own choices. It made for amazing character growth and I loved every minute of it.
It quickly becomes obvious that this show is bigger than the single season it’s in so far. I did some research, and found out that there is going to be an attempt for five seasons. As of this review there is no confirmation of a season two being greenlit, but there is plenty of plot threads to pick up on, both major and minor. I sincerely hope that it does get five seasons, as the first season spent a lot of time with the sensates figuring out their connection with one another and what was going on, and it will make this season feel more balanced in the end. That’s my biggest criticism, if I were to call it that – so much time is spent on the initial discovery that I started to wonder how they were going to wrap it up. At the same time, I loved the character development, so I didn’t really want to take it away.
BUT IS IT REALISTIC?
While working on my review, which was originally for individual episodes but then morphed into a review of the series, I broke my personal rule of looking at what other reviewers were saying. And I’m going to address a large criticism seen in many of these reviews: that of Nomi’s portrayal of the life of a transgender woman. The critics say that her narrative is unrealistic, and that no one is really treated that badly for being transgender.
People can like what they like and not like what they don’t, and I’m not asking anyone to like Nomi because she’s trans. But to say her narrative is unrealistic is a gross mockery of the experience many transgender women face today.
I watched this series with my girlfriend, who is a transgender woman. More than once she squeezed my hand so tight I asked if we needed to pause the show. So many of the scenes involving Nomi reflected things my girlfriend has directly experienced. She isn’t the only person I know who has faced this either – and if one takes the time to read about other transgender women’s experiences, they will see that Nomi’s experiences are, horrifyingly, not unusual.
It is also an incredible thing to see the kind of romantic relationship I’m in portrayed in a high-budget TV series, and done so with such respect and is so well-written. So often, transgender women are played by cisgender men or cisgender women, both portrayals tending to vary from unintentionally offensive to intentionally offensive by skewing society’s perception of transgender women’s bodies. Here, Nomi written by a transgender woman and played by a transgender actress. That’s incredible.
This entire series is about evolving and learning how to use each other’s skills and strengths to better the group. Each of the sensates’ lives are incredibly different from the others, and they all have stories to tell. But if someone viewing the show does not wish to learn something new, to challenge their preconceptions of the world, Sense8 will not appeal to them.
DON’T LOOK HIM IN THE EYE
A lot of money went into this show, and it shows. Shot on location in nine different cities (San Francisco, United States; Chicago, United States; Seoul, South Korea; Mumbai, India; Nairobi, Kenya; Berlin, Germany; London, United Kingdom; Reykjavik, Iceland), the attention to detail showed.
What was even more impressive was the acting in the scenes where it switches from one city to another while two sensates are talking. This means that these scenes had to be filmed twice, in two different locations. However, the nature of the Netflix series’ works in Sense8’s favor, allowing to act like a movie and shooting plenty of scenes for the series out of order.
Then, in the editing room post production, those conversations were seamless. It added to the wonder of what was happening to the sensates, and the sheer potential being presented to them. Suddenly, they can travel around the world in an instant.
Another impressive feat was that the time zones were always accurate. I totally admit that I did not catch this, but my girlfriend did. She has a good head for those sorts of details, and had been constantly mentally checking to see if the time zones matched up for scenes happening simultaneously. After that, I started to notice.
This does make it difficult to tell the passage of time in the series, however.
There were interesting decisions made about language, especially with so many being spoken in each episode. The show gets around this by having everyone speaking English, except in moments where it’s obvious that a difference in language is important to the plot, or when something is difficult to hear and does not need to be understood by the audience. I assume that the same would be true for each of the dubbed versions offered.
I believe the effect is, for sake of not having to read so many subtitles, to understand that the non-native English speakers are going to be speaking their own languages most of the time. I watched the show with closed-captions, and it became easy to see what was supposed to be understood and what wasn’t.
But my favorite part about this show, directing-wise, was the fight sequences.
The abilities of a sensate are heightened by the ability to have more than one mind looking at a situation at once, but the actual physical capabilities aren’t super human. They still bleed and take damage and get scars from it. So skill is needed, and luckily for the cluster the story follows there are three different sensates who have a variety of fighting styles to use.
Watching these fight scenes made it obvious to me that this was something the Wachowskis had a hand in. I felt like the fights were unpredictable (in a good way), often brutal, and absolutely fantastic. Also, it was refreshingly free from the gratuitous amounts of gore that other Netflix or HBO series have. When I say this I don’t mean there isn’t any at all, because there is some, the camera doesn’t dwell on it for very long because usually it’s in the middle of a fight sequence.
There are a few moments that are brutal in terms of gore, but none of it bothered me like Daredevil’s violence did. I wouldn’t usually compare these two series, because they’re so different in tone and story and focus, but Daredevil does show what Netflix is willing to allow in terms of violence. Sense8 had the potential to go farther with the violence and more often, and didn’t.
Maybe they decided to keep the blood for showing actual births onscreen. Yes, real childbirths were filmed and used in the show.
I’m no expert in film, but I am aware of the idea that calling attention to oneself is not a good idea in any artistic medium. To not give spoilers, there were many times in Iceland where arc shots were used. I understand the story elements that were trying to be made with that camera angle, but I think that it was used too often, since I started to notice it constantly.
BOTTOM LINE: PHENOMENAL… IF YOU’RE INTO IT
This is a show that people will either love or hate, and if there’s an in-between I’ll be greatly surprised. But if you love it then this is going to knock your socks off. The ensemble cast is sure to have someone everyone will love. I eagerly await news of a season two.