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Sense8 Christmas special review: Netflix’s series captures our interconnected world better than any other TV show

The sci-fi drama captures how it feels to vicariously experience the lives of others online.

The cluster comes together as Sense8 season two begins.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

As a standalone Christmas special, the new two-hour Sense8 event, straightforwardly titled “Sense8: A Christmas Special” and debuting on Netflix Friday, December 23, leaves something to be desired.



Technically, it’s more of a premiere for the series’ upcoming second season (dropping in May 2017). It picks up in the wake of the season one finale, as the characters — now aware that they’re all mentally linked, despite being scattered around the globe — start to make sense of their new lives. It introduces new storylines that will presumably be addressed in the episodes to come and sets up conflicts that will play out as the season goes on.

If you have never seen the show before and were hoping for a tiny taste of its gleeful madness, well, “Sense8: A Christmas Special” probably isn’t going to be what gets you hooked. (For that, watch the “What’s Up” montage from season one instead.)

But I’m not sure that matters. I’m not even that big of a Sense8 fan, and I was still thrilled by this special. Late in its two-hour run time, when one character says of the Berlin Wall that the greatest barriers dividing us aren’t horizontal but vertical, I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, but I felt it in my gut all the same. Eliciting that sort of response is Sense8’s specialty — its emotional core is so strong that it almost doesn’t matter if it makes sense.

That’s exactly what 2016 needs to close up shop.

Sense8 is the best show on TV about being on the internet

Danger stalks the cluster of Sensates at every turn.

I struggled to get into Sense8 in its early going, and I always felt a bit bewildered by people who were hooked from the get-go. But a few weeks after I’d watched season one — and couldn’t stop thinking about it — I realized what makes this show so potent: It captures the feeling of being on the internet.

At the center of Sense8 is what the show calls a “cluster,” eight people from all over the world who essentially share a consciousness. They’re separate, but also part of the same mega-organism. In practice, this means that when the German guy gets backed into the corner by thugs intent on ending his life, he can channel the martial arts skills of a Korean woman half a planet away to fight his way out.

It’s a nifty idea, and in its best moments, the series boasts all the wild kineticism of the best action sequences from its action-connoisseur co-creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski (who were behind, among other films, the Matrix movies and 2012’s Cloud Atlas, which now seems to act as a Sense8 preview). When Sense8 is flying high, it has a goofy momentum that feels unstoppable, with characters swapping in and out of each other’s heads to take care of one problem or another.

More understated — but just as interesting — is how the show talks about the porousness of identity in an age when we have seemingly constant access to strangers’ innermost thoughts.

Certainly, reading the Twitter feed of someone living in another country isn’t the same as sharing a consciousness with them, but it’s on the same continuum. The internet hasn’t just made it possible to empathize with others; it’s made us more capable of imagining ourselves as them.

Thus my feeling that, on some level, Sense8 is about being on the internet — something that’s also reflected in the show’s unforced diversity. The eight members of the cluster span different races and sexualities and genders, and every so often, all of them collapse into a kind of shared sexual passion, a rolling orgy that transcends the limits of time and space to bring people together through the power of sexy good times.

Sense8 is fascinated by the idea that the differences between one human being and the next are what make humanity exciting; the show is particularly interested in what makes each one of us unique. And while it doesn’t ever argue that all humans are the same, it suggests that the mere existence of those differences is actually what makes us similar.

That notion makes the show a soothing antidote in a year riven with division.

Sense8’s Christmas special lags early on, but lands in exactly the right place

Silver bells. Silver bells. It’s Christmas time for the Sensates.

Watching the Christmas special put me in mind of Dar Williams’s song “The Christians and the Pagans,” about an extended family coming together for a holiday celebration, despite the fact that some of them are Christians and some of them are ... not. It’s about the idea that no matter your religious tradition, it’s of immense value to set aside a few times during the year when we all come together and celebrate our common humanity.

That comes through loud and clear in “Sense8: A Christmas Special,” even when it’s offering up hyper-goopy covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or a glorious chorus of men dressed as Santa.

At first, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for a show that occasionally feels as if it’s been beamed back to us from the distant future to hook up with one of our most prominent religious holidays, but the more you watch of the special, the more you’ll say, “Oh, sure. Of course.”

In particular, it underlines how the members of the cluster, on the run from the villainous Whispers, long to go home but also know that if they do, they’ll be in immense danger. Since the holidays are a time when many of us long to return home, putting Christmas lights on the story gives it a bittersweet tinge.

But I won’t lie: This is still a bunch of cosmic gobbledygook knitted together with some astonishingly fun action sequences, followed by moments of casual profundity tossed off under softly falling snow. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for more or pretty certain that the best way to consume Sense8 is in two-hours increments every 18 months, the better to walk away with a goofy, giddy smile on my face.

What I do know is that Sense8 feels almost like a daring statement of purpose from Netflix, from the Wachowskis, and from co-creator J. Michael Straczynski. In 2016, a year that seemed intent on declaring that we’ve all been living in hermetically sealed cocoons and don’t understand each other at all, Sense8 says there’s nothing so great that can’t be overcome by stepping back and taking the time to consider someone else’s perspective. The true revolution comes not with bloodshed but with talking and laughing and techno music, and if you must find salvation, better to do it with close friends, amid the snow.

Sense8’s Christmas special is now streaming on Netflix, alongside season one. Season two debuts in May 2017.

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