TV: Sense8 (Season 1)

Sense8It’s hard to imagine anyone being lukewarm about the ambitious, fascinating new Netflix series Sense8. This type of art either repels you, or compels you. I fell squarely into the latter camp: this is sensational television, a moving and intense ride as likable in its thoughtful conversations as it is in its kinetic, emotionally fraught action sequences. It’s a singular, unforgettable series.

Sense8 tells the story of eight individuals around the world whose lives, though they don’t know it at first, are intrinsically linked. Upstanding cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) struggles to live up to his legendary father, and his own moral code, in the mean streets of Chicago. In Mexico City, telenovela superstar Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) harbors a secret that jeopardizes his career. In India, pharmaceutical scientist Kala (Tina Desai) is about to get married to the man of everyone’s dreams…except hers. German safecracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) has issues extricating himself from a criminal family, while kind-hearted Kenyan bus driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) gets sucked into a world of crime he wants nothing to do with. In London, aimless DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton) hides from her troubled past in Iceland, while elsewhere Sun Bak (Doona Bae) lives in the shadow of her powerful family, not to mention the suffocating patriarchy of South Korea. Finally there’s Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a transgender blogger in San Francisco whose family still refuses to accept her transition.

They all have their own lives and their own problems, but they’re about to come together, miraculously—for they’re all “sensates,” unwitting members of a linked cluster of metahumans whose minds connect over vast distances. They can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel each other’s experiences and memories. As the knowledge of their power grows, so does their ability to leverage it. And it’s a good thing, too, because sinister forces are hard at work looking to track down and exploit them.

It’s a sprawling and complex multi-tracked story with an enormous scope, brilliantly realizing a rich premise; think Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human with a 21st century edge. There’s layered and complex mystery-building, a diverse and convincing cast of disparate characters, commanding visual artistry, science fictional trappings, thoughtful philosophical musings, open-minded religious undertones, inventive world-building lore, and profoundly relevant sociopolitical themes—all sprayed, in erratic but artful fashion, over a twelve-episode canvas. The Wachowskis’ penchant for flashy pyrotechnics and massive, logistics-defying productions turns out to be a terrific match with the serial story-telling chops and intriguing themes and ideas of J. Michael Straczynski. It is, first and foremost, an impressive viewing experience: loud, eye-widening, busy as hell, but by no means empty, because it’s also got thought-provoking concepts and heart-winning values underpinning it all.

The acting is top notch from all eight members of the sensate cluster, as well as in key supporting roles; I was particularly fond of Freema Agyeman as Nomi’s spirited girlfriend and Eréndira Ibarra as Lito’s spicy co-star Daniela. While the heroes of the piece, with the exceptions of Nomi and Lito, aren’t all that finely textured, I found myself caring about them all deeply—and caring about them as a unit, which I think is key to the show’s magic. In a world with a terminal shortage of empathy, Sense8 brings us a multiracial, international, super-powered family that symbolically represents empathy. Individually they’re trying to get by in the face of relentless pressure from toxic, external forces: institutions, prejudices, societal norms, family traditions, corruption, capitalism, the patriarchy, you name it. But it’s when they think outside of themselves, and work together despite vast distances and differences, that they come into their own. It’s a message that the world needs to hear, if my progressive, left-leaning sensibility has anything to say about it, and it landed right in my sociopolitical sweet spot.

Sense8 went straight to my heart so effectively that I found it easy to ignore its flaws. There are tonal missteps from time to time: the cultural backdrops of each nation are perhaps a tad cliché, and the blazing pace of its structurally unforgiving narrative loses momentum down the home stretch. The finale’s attempt to resolve the complicated weave of plots and subplots, while still leaving the door open for further adventures, is messy, perhaps inevitably so. But none of this diminished my love for series, which from the word go felt like mainlining a madly creative fictionalization of the modern zeitgeist. It’s meaningful, immediate, bracing, and intensely entertaining television that casts a powerful spell.

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