Remembering The Late, Great SENSE8
Netflix cancelled Lana and Lilly Wachowski's sci-fi thriller series Sense8 last week, cutting the show short after Season 2's cliffhanger finale. It's one of the first times - if not the only time - the service has actively cancelled a show; Netflix has otherwise characterised itself through hungrily greenlighting and purchasing content like there's no tomorrow. Still, it’s happened: Sense8 will not see its story completed.
I’m pretty gutted about that. Where it left off, Sense8 was kicking into high gear, its eight core characters had gelled into a unit, and even its support cast was getting some quality development. Like with much late-model Wachowski work, Sense8 doesn't have a huge fan base, but its fans REALLY love it, connecting with it on a primal level. A sci-fi story about eight individuals from around the world sharing a psychic and sensual connection, it demands big leaps from its audience, but it rewards leapers with 20-odd hours of real heart.
A conspiracy plot threads through Sense8, involving assassins, torture, scientific experiments, and shadowy cabals, but it’s the show’s least interesting element. I’ll remember Sense8 far more for its personal stories. Its diverse main cast includes a German safecracker embroiled in organised crime; a transgender lesbian hacker; a closeted Mexican movie star; a Chicago cop with a nagging unsolved mystery; a Korean executive framed and imprisoned for embezzlement; an Indian chemist in an arranged marriage to a controversial political figure; a Kenyan bus driver turned folk hero and politician; and an Icelandic DJ with survivor’s guilt and dodgy friends. It’s a lot to keep track of, particularly once supporting characters are included, but the actors paint their characters so vividly that it actually works.
Their work would be wasted were it not for the skilled filmmakers (the Wachowskis, J. Michael Stracynski, Tom Tykwer, James McTeigue) wrangling together this utterly insane production. The Wachowskis’ stylistic flourishes are largely absent, replaced by virtuoso editing of what must have been a daunting stack of rushes. Action scenes in Sense8 aren’t all about combat; the characters assist each other with all their talents, from Lito’s acting to Caphaeus’ driving to Nomi’s computer prowess. The filmmaking reflects the show’s themes perfectly, with the best bits approaching sheer cinematic ecstasy. In particular, no other television show can hope to match Sense8’s heaving, gorgeous sex scenes - orgiastic sequences that utterly justify The Matrix Reloaded’s rave scene as the beginning of something special.
Sense8 also does an enormous amount for queer representation. Not only are several of its characters queer, including closeted gay actor Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and trans hacker Nomi (Jamie Clayton), those characters enjoy the healthiest romances in a show packed full of them. What’s more, the show’s central conceit - that the eight main characters share each other’s experiences - breathes empathy into even the more conservative members of the cluster. By the end of the first season, the cluster’s profound understanding and unquestioning willingness to help each other out becomes the show’s greatest asset. It’s another story (after The Matrix and Cloud Atlas) that liberates identity from the physical realm into the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, and god damn it, we need more stories about people connecting rather than clashing.
The show had issues, sure. Its eight-way narrative could feel kinetically frenzied and narratively slow all at once - a turn-off if you don’t allow yourself to acclimatise. The conspiracy plotline became thematically inconsistent and scientifically laughable as it distanced its “homo sensorium” characters from humanity. The writers clearly identified with some characters more than others. And on that note, the show really could have used a more diverse writing staff; as its Indian and possibly also its African- and Korean-set scenes demonstrate, research can never equal lived experience when writing about unfamiliar cultures. But to me, the show's sheer openness of heart more than made up for its issues, if not entirely excusing them.
Why cancel Sense8? Its viewer numbers can’t have been much lower than Netflix's countless other shows. My suspicions lie in the budget, which doubled in season 2 to $9 million per episode, and the sheer logistical hell the production required, shooting almost entirely on-location across over a dozen countries. From a production standpoint, the show was ambitious as fuck, and it’s a miracle of editing that it came together so effectively.
What next, then, for the Wachowskis? Sense8 felt like their imaginations undiluted, indulging in many of their recurring tropes in a long form medium. It was glorious, in other words, recalling their unsung masterpiece Cloud Atlas. Only Netflix would fund such a bold, willfully weird production - and now, even they won't. After the dismal box office returns of Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and most recently Jupiter Ascending (which, damn it, all deserve at least some love), one wonders how much clout the sisters still command in terms of big-budget cinema.
But Sense8 demonstrated, with its down-to-earth production values (location madness aside, it’s stylistically down-to-earth), that the Wachowskis don't need enormous CGI budgets to achieve their vision. I'm as into the idea of small, intellectually ambitious Wachowski projects as I am into giant, visually ambitious space operas. I just pray they keep getting to work. They're possessed of a depth of soul and idiosyncrasy of imagination that frankly, I'm not even sure we deserve. Long may they reign.