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I watched Netflix's Sense8 and don't know if it's a travesty or a whacked-out masterpiece

Sun (Doona Bae) becomes the group's muscle, and her fights are often thrilling to watch.
Sun (Doona Bae) becomes the group's muscle, and her fights are often thrilling to watch.
Netflix

There is a moment toward the end of Sense8's eighth episode that is unlike literally anything I have ever seen. (You can watch the Netflix series' entire first season here.)

Rating


3.5

Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a political activist who suddenly finds herself stalked by a mysterious organization bent on wiping her out because she possesses psychic powers, learns from one of the friends with whom she shares a psychic link that the bad guys are on their way.

With the help of her girlfriend, Nomi escapes the house where the couple has holed up, but she's soon surrounded by cops working for the evil organization. She sends out a call for help, and in a thrilling, kinetic sequence that's hard to describe, several of the other people with whom she's psychically linked swap into her body to share their skills of, say, martial arts fighting, so that she can make her way to freedom. The show is at its best during moments like this one, when it leaves behind the leaden weight of exposition and simply showcases its loopy, high-concept in action.

But whatever momentum the series gains is immediately buried underneath all of its other, far more ponderous qualities. Sense8 is a show forever trapped between two things — its core artistic impulses and its need to over-explain everything that happens within its confines. That makes it at once beautiful and maddening, either a complete travesty or a whacked-out masterpiece — and sometimes both in the same scene.

Warning: spoilers for the entire first season follow, but it's kind of hard to spoil this show, since so many of its pleasures come from experiencing it in the moment.

What the hell is a Sense8?

Will and Riley attempt to escape on Sense8.

Will (Brian J. Smith) and Riley (Tuppence Middleton) are just two of the eight sensates.

Netflix

Sense8 takes its sweet time telling viewers what's going on, which means it's easy enough to abandon the series as so much metaphysical gobbledygook. And the season's first half offers several compelling reasons to do just this, which we'll get to in a moment.

But the core premise of Sense8 is pretty easy to explain — it's kind of like X-Men. The show's central "sensates" (there are eight of them, hence the title) are the next step in human evolution. They live all over the globe, are of all genders and sexualities and races, and only find themselves "activated" after a woman named Angelica (Daryl Hannah) kills herself in the opening moments of the first episode.

The sensates share a sort of communal group brain, which allows them to communicate telepathically with each other, as well as help each other out of jams. It's in these sequences that Sense8 displays the most spirit and life. Characters will suddenly appear from out of nowhere, as if flying through the planet itself to come to the rescue. It's loopy and distinctive and, above all, fun.

For several episodes, it's not precisely clear how the sensates' shared consciousness is meant to work, but by the end of the season, when seven of the sensates are launching a mission to rescue the eighth, the series has mostly familiarized its audience with the concept and can start having fun with it.

In its best moments, Sense8 expands the visual grammar of what television is capable of. And in its worst, well, we'll get to that.

The Matrix people made this, right?

Lito makes one of his movies in Sense8.

Sadly, the action exploits of Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) don't prove to be the second coming of The Matrix.

Netflix

Yes. Andy and Lana Wachowski co-created and co-wrote all 12 episodes; they also directed seven of those 12 episodes. (The series' four directors actually split up their production time among the show's filming locations, so "who directed which episode" is more a question of who's credited. Everybody directed a little bit of everything.) You can absolutely feel in Sense8's most inventive moments that the siblings are reaching for something as visually inventive as the Matrix movie series. That they come as close as they do is impressive in and of itself.

In particular, Sense8's choice to film its action in nine different locations on four different continents (North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa) gives it a visual grandeur that no other TV show can match. Yeah, Game of Thrones might have CGI dragons, but has it ever staged a raucous celebration in Mumbai or a high-speed chase on a freeway in Nairobi? Sense8 doesn't offer anything as massive as some of the Wachowskis' biggest movie action sequences, but it doesn't have to. In a TV world where most everything is still shot in LA or New York, just the sight of, say, Seoul is enough.

The Wachowskis have also joined with some of their favorite collaborators, including fellow episode directors Tom Tykwer, who co-directed their Cloud Atlas; James McTeigue, who directed V for Vendetta (which the siblings produced); and Dan Glass, who has served as the visual effects supervisor on many Wachowski films.

But the Wachowskis are also working with a longtime TV producer in
J. Michael Straczynski, whose 1990s series Babylon 5 was an early experiment in the idea of TV functioning more as a novel than it had in the past. That show famously had a five-year plan, and Straczynski wrote an incredible number of its episodes. On Sense8, he's credited as a co-creator and co-writer with the Wachowskis of all 12 episodes.

Does Sense8 feel like a Wachowski project?

The sensates gather on Sense8.

The show's cast proves almost effortlessly diverse.

Netflix

Oh, yes, and in ways both good and bad. We've already discussed the project's visual opulence and inventive action sequences. But it's also very nearly undone by its larger themes.

On one hand, it's thrilling to watch a TV series that's so casually diverse. There are characters of all races here, as well as a trans woman whose efforts to define herself are portrayed as necessary victories. There's a gay Mexican man hiding his sexuality so he can continue getting acting work, and there's a South Korean woman navigating the worlds of corporate intrigue and, later, prison (when she takes the fall for a crime committed by others).

But on the other hand, the overall effect is that of eight different tiny personal dramas knitted together with the massive mythology and backstory of a series like Lost. The sensates' complicated history is a new step in evolution, which is outlined in intricate detail, and the scope of the story is global in reach.

The problem is that the eight sensates are each part of their own TV shows — with entirely different tones and even (occasionally) different shooting styles. One might be a wacky sex farce, while another is a somewhat realistic portrayal of a young Kenyan man struggling to get by while avoiding local crime bosses. These eight different shows are then awkwardly connected with a massive information dump, usually delivered by Lost veteran Naveen Andrews. It's like watching a bunch of intimate family dramas while seated in a rock tumbler.

This might've been just fine if the Wachowskis and Straczynski had found some sort of major thematic concern that pushed beyond the wholly abstract. Sense8 contains kernels of ideas about globalization, gender, sexuality, and race, as well as some dabbling in themes of religion. But for the most part, the show's deeper ideas could have been just as easily conveyed by the cast staring at the camera and saying, "Have you considered how we're all human beings? Really makes you think."

The Wachowski film Sense8 is most similar to is probably 2012's Cloud Atlas, which is a movie that combines six different stories in six different time periods via a virtuoso feat of editing, creating a sort of iPod shuffle of cinematic history. But Cloud Atlas is a hair under three hours long, and Sense8 is over 11, with more seasons ostensibly to come. (The show has not been renewed yet, but it's hard to imagine Netflix not picking it up for more seasons.) What felt thrilling in that earlier film can easily feel exhausting here.

What else doesn't work?

Sense8 has some dialogue problems.

Amanita (Freema Agyeman, left) and Nomi (Jamie Clayton) like to remind each other (and the audience) of how they met. Awwwww.

Netflix

By and large, if you are a person who likes sparkling dialogue, you are going to want to run as far as possible away from this show. There are occasional scenes — particularly when the sensates finally start to feel comfortable with their abilities — that don't feel like a barrage of constant exposition, but Sense8's early going is rough. Characters explain to each other how they met. They pray to the gods so that we might hear their backstory. They make sure we know each and every little detail about them in ways that stop any momentum dead.

The Wachowskis and Straczynski have mostly doled out information about sensate powers in a way that works pretty well. The audience only slowly learns what's up, because the characters are learning right alongside viewers. That makes the sequences where, say, the sensates suddenly realize they can call out to each other for help and possibly get someone to answer all the more exciting, because they're depicted in the moment.

But the character drama stuff is not Sense8's strong suit, and it's wedded to leaden, expository dialogue that explains and over-explains, lest we miss the point of certain scenes. Nomi, for instance, launches into a lengthy monologue in episode two about her growing pride as a trans woman, and it feels less like organic dialogue and more like an online rant. Sense8 requires some sense of intimacy to work, and that sense of intimacy is too often misplaced.

So is this thing any good or not?

Jonas and Anjelica are behind it all on Sense8.

Naveen Andrews and Daryl Hannah play characters with a mysterious agenda when it comes to the new sensates.

Netflix

If you haven't guessed, my feelings on Sense8 are massively, massively conflicted. I love the series' ambition and visuals, but what it gets wrong is so fundamental to the tenets of good storytelling that it's hard to go along with much of it. I feel as if all of the series' characters are, essentially, one-dimensional types designed to move the story forward (and boiled down to their "special skills" in action sequences). But I will eagerly watch season two when it arrives.

There's no way in which Sense8 is essential viewing in the slightest, but there's so much about it that attempts to completely push the limits of what television is capable of that I'm inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Watching the show is sometimes a tremendously frustrating experience, but then it will shatter its own limitations — with an impromptu sing-along or a perfectly executed action sequence — and you'll get a glimpse of what it could be with a few tweaks.

I haven't ever seen a show like Sense8, and that's both a good and a bad thing. It's nice to see something this wild and original, but it's also very clear that everybody involved is working without a net — and, in many scenes, without a tightrope as well. Is it any good? Ask me after season two. For now, let's split the difference.

The first season of Sense8 is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.


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