SENSE8 Is The Show We Need Now More Than Ever
It’s been two years since Netflix debuted the first season of Sense8, the audacious, international sci-fi series from the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, but the wait for more is nearly over: On May 5, all ten episodes of the show’s second season will finally be released.
Sense8 follows eight people from vastly different backgrounds all across the world whose lives begin to gradually intertwine when they discover that they share a mental link with one another. “Sensates” can share their collective thoughts, skills, and experiences with anyone in their eight-person cluster. The ensemble cast of characters is comprised of: Will, a Chicago police officer; Nomi, a transgender hacker living in San Francisco; Lito, a closeted Spanish actor torn between his movie career and revealing his sexuality; Sun, an underground Korean kickboxer who gets caught up in her family’s illegal business dealings; Capheus, a bus driver in Nairobi working to pay for his mother’s AIDS medication; Kala, a religious Indian pharmacist who is engaged to a man she doesn’t really love; Wolfgang, a German thief; and Riley, an Icelandic D.J. hiding a tragic past. The show debuted with mixed reviews, but quickly garnered a loyal fan base—enough to eventually get a second season. Sense8 sort of got buried toward the bottom of Netflix’s originals library behind massive hits like Orange is the New Black. And while it’s been very successful in international markets, whenever I try recommending it, I find most people haven’t even heard of it.
As a television show, the two biggest things Sense8 has working against it from gaining new viewers are its slow-burn storytelling approach and the fact that we’re living in the era of Peak TV. On some level, its lack of immediate attention is understandable. The first season has its share of flaws. The early episodes take a while to introduce everyone—they don’t take the single episode to focus on a single character approach—and as a result, the show moves slower compared to the way most contemporary series start off. It also probably doesn’t help that some of the episodes also run for over an hour, as most of Netflix’s originals series are known to do, and that some of the early dialogue is a little awkward. The creators have a five-year plan in mind for the series, and hopefully they’ll get to fulfill it, but as we’ve seen before, having a long-term roadmap doesn’t guarantee that a story will get to be told in its entirety. For people who are troubled with the show’s pace, here’s the positive flip side: Sense8 doesn’t bombard you with an overarching sci-fi plot, and instead allows you get to know the characters and the world. There’s a lot to appreciate with the show, and if you go in patient and with an open mind, I think you’ll be rewarded.
I don’t want to ruin all the ways in which characters start connecting, but one of the best moments from season one—and perhaps the most effective non-action scene that underlines the premise and themes—happens in episode four, titled “What’s Going On?” Toward the end of the episode, Riley cues up the 4 Non-Blonde song, “What’s Up” on her iPod. Simultaneously, in Germany, Wolfgang sings the same song while out at a Karaoke bar; in Nigeria, Capheus hears it on the radio…and so on. Across the world, each character begins hearing the song—even if it’s just the melody in their head—and they all start singing along. I was mildly enjoying Sense8 up until this point, but this was the moment that won me over. The scene itself is so joyful, partly because it’s one of the first times where we’re witnessing all of the characters having fun, but also because it underscores their shared connection not just as trippy or fantastical, but as something genuinely emotional. There are a number of other standout scenes that follow, including one at an orchestra concert that flashes back to the births of all of the main characters.
The emotional threads of the show carried me through the rest of the first season. In December, Netflix debuted a two-hour long Christmas special as a bridge between seasons one and two. The special had a lot to accomplish: checking in with everyone in its large cast (including one character who had been recast) while still paving the way for the next chapter, and not bogging the story down with too much exposition. Narratively, there’s still a lot for the show to address, but overall, I though the special was a success. I’d grown fond of these characters and it was comforting to revisit them.
The actual mythology of Sense 8 hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet. Questions surrounding the nature of sensates, how many clusters exist in the world, and what their ultimate purpose is—are all ones that the show should probably explore more coherently. A lot of the first season feels unfinished and functions more as a prologue to the real story. Characters discover their various connections at different paces, depending on what they’re dealing with in their own lives at any given point. After being separated throughout so much of the season, it’s a lot of fun to watch the sensates team up in big action scenes, but it’s also fascinating to watch two or more characters share an intimate moment together and discover something unexpected in common. At one point, the writers do offer a brief explanation as to how these eight characters are linked (it has to do with human evolution), but it’s an important moment that’s inserted into a largely uneventful scene. Thus far, the government experiment story has been pretty thinly developed, and is probably the least interesting part of the series. Luckily, at least so far, Sense8 seems to be more invested in the various connections between its characters rather than building toward some grand conspiracy, which if you love and care about the characters, is great.
In general, with the rise of binge-watching, plenty of shows generate discussion as soon as they premiere (just look at the recent adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why), but we rarely see the same thing happen over time anymore. Netflix shows generally tend to burn bright early on and stay in the general conversation, or not at all. But it would be a shame if this ambitious, sprawling show—capable of connecting to a massive, worldwide audience—was doomed to be a niche piece of television. Despite its shortcomings, Sense8 is visually striking, emotionally resonant, and is doing things with character that no other show is attempting.
I have an additional theory as to why Sense8 hasn’t taken off yet, and why now might be the perfect time for it to resonate with more viewers. Like many people, I spent a lot of time mourning the 2016 election results. For a while, I couldn’t really do anything else but reflect on what had happened; nothing could provide me with an escape or distraction. The election also coincided with another, completely separate tragedy: the loss of Leonard Cohen, who died on November 7. When Saturday Night Live returned that same week, it opened with a rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” performed by Kate McKinnon as Hilary Clinton. After she sang, McKinnon turned to the camera and tearfully said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.” Then, one month later, Sense 8 released its Christmas special, which also included a cover of “Hallelujah.” I found myself feeling moved for the second time in the span of a few weeks by the same song, and I was reminded in both instances not to lose hope.
Just think: Sense8 premiered in 2015—doesn’t that feel like a lifetime ago? There’s a sliding scale when it comes to storytelling. We’ve sort of reached the point where dystopian worlds feel exhausted, and I think things are going to start moving in the other direction. Political dramas like House of Cards and Scandal that premiered during the last decade were compelling because they were dark fantasies about how the U.S. government might operate, but what exactly is their function now? It’s always easier to imagine a worst-case scenario when you aren’t living in it. While House of Cards quickly became Netflix’s first breakout series back in 2013, I doubt the upcoming fifth season is going to have the same reception when it returns this May.
I don’t want to reduce Sense 8 to a single message, but I also want to applaud it for its progressivism. No other show on television comes close to the level of inclusion and representation it has, and it doesn’t get nearly enough credit for that. One of the first season’s most memorable scenes takes place between Lito and Nomi visiting each other at a museum. Nomi talks about the pain she faced growing up and how it made her the woman that she’s become today. Lito is moved by hearing her courage, and their conversation ultimately pushes him to come out. The sensates aren’t always in control of who they appear to, but usually it’s because they need something from one another. It’s clearly by design that Sense 8 spans the entire world and depicts people from all walks of life. This show is fundamentally about celebrating diversity, having compassion for people that are different than you, and the importance of empathy—all of which are things we desperately need in our stories right now. “Art is political,” one character says in the Christmas special, and this show lives and breathes so many of the issues of our time. All of the marches and protests that have taken place in recent months have been inspiring—they’ve shown how much people still care and how they’re willing to come together. I get a similar feeling while watching certain scenes in Sense8—setting aside its imperfections, it’s one the most hopeful shows I’ve ever seen.
This is a show that is clearly still a work in progress, but one that shows real promise and has enormous heart. It knows what it wants to say on a thematic level and more importantly, it has things to say. It isn’t trying to scare us like Black Mirror, but it’s capturing the zeitgeist in its own way. It’s hard not to overstate what it means for a show like this to exist right now. With its commitment to putting LGBT characters and people of color in the foreground and its clear message of empathy over fear, Sense8 is the kind of television remedy that we need more of. Sometimes great art can come from horrible stuff, and sometimes the right kind of art comes along at just the right moment. Sense8 couldn’t be returning at a better time.