Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are spending enormous amounts on original shows. In the frantic race to stay ahead, some of that money will inevitably be thrown at underdeveloped projects. Netflix’s Sense8 is Exhibit A. An enormous budget and vast resources have been lavished on a script with a fatal lack of believability and momentum.
If only these problems had been overcome, because Sense8’s philosophy is admirable and valuable in our divisive political climate. Creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have built a show around the importance of empathy and love. Eight strangers from around the world become telepathically connected, able to share thoughts, skills, and experiences that give them new insights into humanity and themselves as they navigate their day-to-day lives.
To reinforce the scope of their connection, the series doesn’t simulate their home countries from a single production base as most shows are forced to. Sense8 actually filmed in the US, the UK, Mexico, Iceland, Kenya, Germany, South Korea, India, and more. Even the whole cast made the trip, flying around the world despite appearing only as visions in each other’s minds. The effort made behind the scenes intensifies their bond on a meta level.
Considered as a lushly filmed travelogue, Sense8 is a treat; rarely does scripted TV show us so much of the world. And Netflix, eager to make a mark, was willing to pay for it based on the first three scripts. But if they assumed the story would gather steam, they must be disappointed. The show’s lack of buzz – compare Sense8’s cultural footprint with that of SF stablemate Stranger Things – is likely a direct result. A show this expensive can’t afford such narrative inertia unless the character work is supremely confident and effective. Sadly, it’s not.
The cause of this inertia is structural. The Wachowskis and Straczynski have chosen to establish their eight characters not by foregrounding their discovery of this empathetic connection and its impact on them, but by spending the whole first season telling largely unrelated stories about their personal lives. A mythology narrative simmers in the background as shadowy forces hunt down down, but it only occasionally ties in. By the end of the season it has barely progressed while offering little evidence that much is left. The mystery raises so few questions and suggests so little room for growth that even cresting a second season seems a tall order.
Doubling down on the character’s pre-existing stories is a big gamble that largely doesn’t pay off. Most of them are drearily conventional and don’t justify the emphasis given to them. Of all the situations to place Indian character Kala (Tina Desai) in, does it have to be a loveless engagement? German safecracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is embroiled in a disposable gangster plot with villains who are far from intimidating. Sun (Doona Bae), daughter of a wealthy South Korean businessman, is forced to go to jail to protect her family but then spends half the season and beyond in every prison movie you’ve ever seen.
These stories only grow more aggravating because the elephant in the room is ignored. The sensates help each other out of scrapes in some often exhilarating sequences, but then return to their own concerns as if nothing happened. When they do dwell on their new ability, they’re strangely at ease with it. Even when two of them prove it’s real by calling each other on the phone, they merely smile and move on. Where is the astonishment or even interest in this unprecedented human occurrence? Instead they resume their parochial personal stories because the Wachowskis and Straczynski insist they matter more than total existential upheaval.
Their attitude can’t be waved away as the ability feeling natural: they’ve lived most of their lives without it. By denying the characters such natural human reactions the script robs them of believability, which is disastrous for a show about empathy. We’re hindered from engaging with the very people meant to demonstrate the value of being empathetic.
Fortunately, a few characters are compelling despite this roadblock. Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a Mexican action movie star who is secretly gay, is gifted with a story that evolves from a farce into tragedy, bolstered by Silvestre’s vulnerable performance and the charismatic Alfonso Herrera as his partner Hernando. And Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a transgender hacktivist in San Francisco, is targeted early by the corporation hunting the sensates, through which we learn about her transphobic parents and lifelong struggle to assert her identity.
Together they share one of the series’ most poignant moments. As Lito agonises over whether to come out and risk his career, Nomi tells him of how she was tormented as a child for not wanting to shower with the other boys. As she tells him how it only deepened her resolve to be true to herself, the scene has an honesty and lack of affectation that the rest of the series would thrive on, perhaps thanks to Lana Wachowski drawing on her own experiences (she has stated that Nomi’s story is quite autobiographical).
But such authenticity is rare because the often platitudinous dialogue keeps the characters at a distance. Both the Wachowskis and Straczynski are known for this, but it made sense in the heightened reality of The Matrix or the theatrical, set-bound Babylon 5. In a contemporary, real-world drama like Sense8 – which they were so determined appear real that they filmed it on location around the world – it sabotages the characters’ plausibility. This is one of those shows where characters spout half-baked profundities at a moment’s notice no matter the situation or launch into a relevant anecdote rather than make their point plainly (“My father once told me”, “When I was a child”, etc). The dialogue is so self-conscious that it distracts from the people actually delivering it.
The result of all this is that Sense8 can’t succeed as a character drama or a mystery thriller. Unwilling to properly integrate the two halves of its nature, major elements are cast adrift. Naveen Andrews appears occasionally as Jonas, a fugitive sensate from another cluster who helps out and dispenses obligatory plot nuggets scripted with little grace or intrigue. And Daryl Hannah’s Angelica, who sets the series in motion when she dies in the show’s opening scene, continues to appear fleetingly as a silent vision or memory. By the end of the second season premiere – in which Hannah is still a regular cast member – her appearances have still added nothing significant. However, the mythology is such well-worn ground that it feels like an afterthought anyway: special people hunted by an evil corporation because they’re special, with hints of meddling in at least one of their childhoods.
Instead of enriching their mythology as the series continues, the creators indulge in long montages to demonstrate the characters’ bond and how awesome empathy and love are. The Christmas Special features long sequences of the sensates swimming together, partying together, and finally having sex together (largely in their heads). These are unquestionably dazzling and audacious sequences, but they stop the show dead, again and again, just as it might be finding focus. A sprawling running time combined with total creative freedom risks a lack of discipline, and Sense8’s lethargy is a prime example.
I admired Sense8’s premise and ambition and liked some of the characters enough to persevere through to the end of the Christmas Special, but I’m now stepping away. A show so convinced of its own worth while demonstrating it so poorly isn’t worth the time. Saying that hurts because Sense8 is so progressive in its values and determined to foster compassion and understanding. Plus, nearly everything in the show actually works: the cinematography, the acting, the direction. Everything but the writing. And given that writing is TV’s hallmark, when it fails it’s a deal-breaker. You’d be wise to look elsewhere for better.