Netflix has done it again, delivering a sterling scifi series that challenges the tropes and traditions of the genre as well as traditional storytelling, understanding of gender and sexuality, and so much more.
*I’ve tried to keep plot spoilers to a minimum but I do reference aspects of characters that could be considered spoilery – you’ve been warned*
I’ll admit I wasn’t convinced by the first episode. While I liked the premise of this series, the first episode felt chaotic and left me feeling untethered in the maelstrom. There were so many characters, so many cultures and identities packed into 60 minutes, I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know who to care about. Consequently, I didn’t really care about any of them and ended the episode feeling weirdly detached from a series that is all about the depth of human connection. Suffice it to say, after chatting to friend online and IRL, I gave the next episode a chance to draw me in and draw me in it did. I proceeded to binge watch half the series in one sitting.
Here’s what makes Sense8 so special and different and worth watching whether you’re a fan of scifi or not…
1) The premise actually done well. There have been a bunch of series – like Heroes and most recently the short-lived Messengers – that endeavoured to connect a disparate group of people by ethereal means. While the other shows have been tragically Western and woefully homogenous (mostly Americans connecting with other Americans where the biggest difference between them is their socio-economic background and possibly race), Sense8 goes all out to entangle 8 people from completely different worlds. In the one ‘cluster’ we have a kickass businesswoman from Seoul involved in an embezzlement scandal, a taxi driver from Nairobi whose mom is dying of AIDS, an Icelandic DJ living in London who gets caught up in the world of drugs, a gay Mexican telenovela star in the closet, a lesbian transwoman and hacktavist living in San Fransisco, a Chicago cop with daddy issues, an Indian woman struggling to come to terms with a loveless engagement, and a German thief with ties to organised crime. These 8 people represent an array of gender identities, sexualities, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, moral codes, and ideologies. The writers seem knowledgeable and sympathetic to the cultures/identities they’re representing on screen although some of these representations still tend toward stereotype. This generally good approach elevates the show beyond quirky scifi fare, making it an exploration of the human condition through various lenses.
2) United by having been born on the same day as sensates, all these people in the cluster start to feel each other’s emotions, and experience each other’s thoughts as well as physical sensations. This allows for some truly unique experiences such as the taxi-driver in Nairobi who has never been out of the country or on an airplane to suddenly experience flying and what life is like around the world through the eyes of others. This is also where the show breaks new ground when it comes to exploring gender identity and sexuality. WARNING – SPOILER AHEAD! SKIP TO POINT 3 TO AVOID— In episode 6 there is a phenomenal ‘orgy’ scene where a couple of the characters are having sex – namely the two gay characters (with their respective partners) – and unwittingly pull the others in their cluster into their experience. This results in the gay Mexican man experiencing lesbian sex, the straight Chicago cop experiencing gay sex etc. The scene is pure art, expertly choreographed to communicate not only the amount of physical passion occurring between characters, but also the transcendental experience these characters are a part of as they switch between various viewpoints. I take my hats off to the producers here because no one – gay or straight – appears to have a negative reaction to this experience, but accepts it for what it is: a borrowed, shared event that expands their mind without compromising who they are. *I just want to hug Netflix for allowing this scene to happen*
3) The scifi-ness takes a back seat to the exploration of humanity. While the show goes to great lengths to show how different each character is and how the events of their lives have uniquely crafted their identity, the show also shows in a most poetic way that no matter where you are on Earth, no matter what your race, religion, or gender, we are all human and can relate to one another on an almost primal level. When one of the cluster is hurting, the others feel it, and the show indulges the audience with fairly long scenes between pairs of character where they simply talk about their emotions, their lives, their thoughts. This is where Sense8 breaks from traditional scifi storytelling to deliver raw and honest dialogue in place of adrenaline-pumping action scenes. In fact, despite what’s going on in the background which definitely does get the adrenaline pumping plot-wise, the show is content to slow down and spend time allowing the characters to discover each other and in turn, discover more about themselves. It really is quite beautiful to see people from such different worlds connect so viscerally with each other. And, of course, there is no judgement, no prejudice, because these characters are literally walking in each other’s shoes, feeling what the other feels, knowing what the other knows. Gah! I get goosebumps just thinking about it!
4) This show doesn’t shy away from tough topics and is, at times, rather difficult to watch. Once again, being on Netflix has given this show a lot of freedom with its content which has resulted in pretty explicit sex scenes (although nothing gratuitous in my opinion) and some unflinching violence – although the show’s focus is definitely more on drama than action. Still, the themes of this show make for some potent emotional content that left me wanting to punch certain characters, rail against the universe, hug a pillow and weep, and jump up and down in elation – sometimes all in the span of a single episode.
5) The trans character in Sense8 is played by a transwoman in real life and the portrayal of Nomi is excellent (it definitely shows that a trans person – Lana Wachowski – was behind this project)!
Note: the characters all speak their own language, but because knowledge is shared between the cluster, they all speak each other’s language which results in the Nairobi man speaking Korean, the German man speaking Punjabi etc. just in case you were wondering how this mass communication was able to take place.
Also, ever since Riley was introduced as Icelandic, I was waiting for the inclusion of a track from Sigur Ros or perhaps Of Monsters and Men – they sure made me wait, but the show finally delivered my music! ;)
Okay, so those are all the things that make the show brilliant and worthy of any and all awards and all your attention. But, I’m nothing if not nitpicky when it comes to scifi and there are a couple of things that do bother me.
1) The cultural/racial stereotypes. While I do think this show goes a lot further than most – any, possibly in this genre – to explore racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, it does tend to full into the traps of stereotypes, such as the dutiful Indian girl marrying a man her parents approve of or the Asian woman who is proficient at martial arts. While I think the show uses these stereotypes to allow their Western target audience to better identify with the characters (although I think its somewhat tragic that Western audiences can only relate to people who are different from them via stereotype!!), I do hope that the writers explore new ground and break away from these stereotypes in seasons to come.
2) Some of the scifi elements are a little odd. For example, these characters can visit each other where they appear physically to one another and can physically interact. This seems to contradict the initial idea that they would be experiencing the world through the other sensate, meaning they could only feel what that person felt sensory wise, and they’ve even shown this a few times – such as a visiting character drinking tea only to have the next scene cut to show the non-visiting character as the one who was drinking the tea. But later, this becomes confused – or blatantly ignored – as characters start to physically interact with one another and the world. In one scene one of the visiting characters drives a car while the existing character sits in the passenger seat. Since in other scenes, the visiting characters remain invisible to everyone but the cluster member and characters are shown to be seen ‘talking to themselves’ by external observers, does this mean that someone watching the car scene would’ve seen a driver-less car hurtling down the road? There’s also the matter of ‘contact during unconsciousness’ that seems a matter of convenience. Minor points of contention, but in a show that does everything else so well these inconsistencies irk me.
Right, so that’s enough about this brilliant show. What are you still doing here? You should be on Netflix watching Sense8! This show scores 5 spectacular ink splats from me.