Sense8 is a bewilderingly original, maddening, confusing TV show, refusing to stay still and be pinned down. One second it's a melodramatic Mexican telenovella starring a handsome action hero living in the closet. The next it's a brooding, gritty Berlin crime drama. Then it morphs into the story of an Icelandic DJ living in London trying to find herself, but denying the secrets of her past in Reykjavik. The next episode might explore transgender identity issues, the next might delve into the story of family and religious life for a young female scientist living in Mumbai. One key storyline focuses on corporate drama in a South Korean business that segues into a Seoul prison drama. Another is a comedy about a cheerful Kenyan man who drives people around Nairobi in his Jean-Claude Van Damme-themed bus...which takes a darker turn when he invokes the ire of the city's gangs. Finally, it's a modern Chicago cop drama musing on race relations and family struggles, right up to the point our cop hero runs into another sensate.
At its heart, Sense8 is a show about empathy. The ability to step into another human being's shoes, imagine what their life is like and try to relate to them emotionally as well as intellectually, is a vital part of what makes us human. It's a vital tool for writers and journalists. Empathy is vital for humans to coexist with one another and understand each other's place in the world. The denial of empathy, the reduction of other people, other cultures, entire other strands of humanity to cliches, to generalisations and to "the other" is to deny their humanity and justify the worst excesses of crime, war and bigotry.
Although a quintessential part of humanity, it's also a nebulous concept to build a TV drama around. J. Michael Straczynski tried once before in his epic mid-1990s space opera series Babylon 5. A subplot explored the lives of telepaths, people who can touch each other's minds and live each other's lives, engaging in an exchange of thoughts, ideas and emotions that "mundanes" could never understand. It was a thoroughly intriguing idea, but one that had to jostle for attention alongside other stories involving war, religion and space-going teddy bears (long story). Straczynski clearly wanted to do more with it, at one time planning a feature film spin-off focusing on the concept, but it was never made.
A meeting with the Wachowskis, who at the time were fresh off their own movie about human lives touching and affecting one another across time and space (Cloud Atlas), led to the development of Sense8. The writers wanted to create an epic show exploring empathy, diversity, emotion and the truth of what makes people people, their joys, their fears, their loves and their prejudices. It was a tall order, but you're never going to accuse the creators of The Matrix trilogy and Babylon 5 of lacking vision or ambition.
Sense8 is mostly successful, although given there's never been anything quite like it before it's hard to come up with a metric to measure it by. Possibly the closest touchstone is Lost, particularly its structure and construction as it builds up the story of eight main characters (and several supporting ones) in tremendous depth and detail, often employing flashbacks and thematic devices so we get to know them better. The presence of Lost actor Naveen Andrews may be a nod to that inspiration (Straczynski was a fan of Lost, as the producers of Lost were big fans of Babylon 5). However, the central mystery in Sense8 is nowhere near as all-encompassing as Lost's, or Babylon 5's for that matter. Sense8 is the product of an older and more mature writer, with Straczynski employing surprising restraint in his storytelling. The show's mythology and main story arc are fairly low-key until the last two episodes, with most of the season's twelve episodes instead focusing on each character and the local struggles they are facing.
To achieve the authentic tone they wanted, the writer-producers made a decision which I can imagine appealed massively to Netflix's PR department, right up to the point it was costed and the budget presented to them. Usually most "international" shows are filmed in one city, with a mixture of set dressings and CG used to make that city look like another. For example, Lost visited Frankfurt, Seoul, London, Guam and Sydney whilst almost never stepping foot outside of Hawaii. Sense8 has no truck with that: to film scenes in nine different cities, the production simply filmed in those cities. And yes, this meant the production had to move between San Francisco, Chicago, Mexico City, Reykjavik, London, Berlin, Nairobi, Mumbai and Seoul for real. This immediately adds a huge amount of authenticity to the project. They also timed shoots to coincide with major street festivals and events (such as San Francisco's Pride march and religious celebrations in Mumbai) to add a sense of scale to events. They even filmed several live childbirths for one particularly memorable scene in the series. Although they often look expensive, a lot of Netflix's original productions are quite modestly-budgeted. Not so much Sense8. This is a big-budget production that looks like a huge amount has been spent on it, but no so much that they producers can get lazy and rely on effects or explosions to make up for good storytelling.
The one thing Sense 8 had to nail, and nail absolutely correctly, is tonal variation. Sense8 is a comedy; it's a martial arts movie; it's a soap opera; it's (briefly) a Bollywood musical; it's one of those gritty crime dramas that turns into a ludicrous Jason Statham action film halfway through. And it has to be able to move between all of those hats easily without blowing the viewer's sense of disbelief. For this viewer, it worked brilliantly. It even sells the tonal variation by inserting "less serious" characters into other storylines: Wolfgang's hardcore Berlin gangster shtick turns into outright lunatic farce when Mexican action thesp Lito helps out, resulting in a sudden escalation into rocket launchers and comical quips whilst gunning down an improbable number of enemies. Similarly, Lito's story is mostly played for laughs right up until the moment when Wolfgang jumps in to help him in a fistfight, when it suddenly becomes bloodier and more serious. Later on, Lito's difficulties with self-identity and sexuality become emotionally raw and real when transgender hacker Nomi relates the story of her own difficult upbringing and coming to terms with who she wanted to be. In such ways bonds are formed between the characters, initially in pairs and trios, and later on between all of them.
There are several key scenes which help with this, perhaps the best of which is the characters simply sharing a musical karaoke moment together at the end of the fourth episode (yes, you will have 4 Non Blondes "What's Up" rattling around your brain for the next few months as a result). Later on the characters witness the moment of each other's birth (featuring some actual live births filmed for the purpose) as a piano concerto wells up in the background. Another scene has a character evading pursuit with each of the other seven characters jumping into her body and steering her between obstacles using their skills. Another scene has all eight of the sensates coming together in one moment soundtracked by Sigur Ros, because Sigur Ros automatically makes everything awesome. There's another scene in which the gang get their wires crossed when several of them are, er, enjoying amorous moments at the same time. And so forth.
Some of the actors are established faces: Daryl Hannah as Angelica and Naveen Andrews as Jonas are the most immediately recognisable, whilst Doctor Who fans will recognise Freema Agyeman as Nomi's girlfriend Amanita. Agyeman was a reasonably good actress on Doctor Who, but in Sense8 she's an absolute revelation. She has some pretty challenging scenes to handle, but blows each one out of the water.
Of the main cast, Tuppence Middleton brings both street-savvy steel and emotional vulnerability to the role of Riley, whilst Will Gorski does an excellent job as all-American cop Will who rapidly has his horizons expanded. Will and Riley's connection forms both the emotional lynchpin of the season and also results in the actual storyline being pushed along the most, so it's helpful that their chemistry is highly convincing. Wachowski regular Doona Bae is both highly intelligent and adept at violence as Sun, although her character arguably suffers a little in the late season period from only showing up when arse needs to be kicked and disappearing for long stretches (although given her character's circumstance, perhaps that's not too surprising).
Max Riemelt is a well-known and very busy German actor, but I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more of him in English-language productions after Sense8. He is excellent as the safe-cracking, Conan the Barbarian-quoting criminal Wolfgang. Tina Desai is likewise excellent in the role of Kala, although her storyline of family drama feels a little undercooked compared to some of the rest. However, it comes to life later in the season when Hindu religious tensions in Mumbai spill over and her previously underplayed abilities with Science! are called upon to help her fellow sensates.
Ami Ameen brings tremendous, infectious energy and enthusiasm to the story of Capheus, which probably has the widest range of tonal variations. Ameen is excellent. Unfortunately, due to a falling-out between Ameen and the producers, he's been recast for Season 2. Hopefully the new actor will be able to bring a similar level of commitment and passion to the role.
Jamie Clayton - a transgender actress playing a transgender character - is tremendously, emotionally honest and real when playing her character of Nomi, especially touching on storyline and character moments that clearly derive from her real life (something Straczynski, in particular, is renowned for). However, she struggles a little more in her role as a font of exposition. Nomi is the group's resident "hactivist" (groan) and starts accumulating data on what's going on by hacking the bad guys' internets and bringing down their firewalls and doing all that TV hacking stuff. To be fair, it's not actually that bad compared to a lot of shows, but it feels like a bit more authenticity was needed to overcome the IT cliches.
One of the most impressive performances comes from Spanish actor Miguel Angel Silvestre as Lito, the closeted Mexican action hero deeply in love with his boyfriend Hernando (a likewise accomplished performance by Alfonso Herrera) who then reluctantly ends up with a "beard" in the form of fellow performer Daniela (Erendira Ibarra). At first glance Lito's story serves as the comic relief only to take a turn for the more dramatically intense later on. In fact, this is the story that sounds the weakest on paper but on screen ends up being one of the best. It also features a hilarious moment where the Wachowskis completely take the mickey out of their own past work, when it turns out even cheap Mexican action films are still stealing ideas from The Matrix.
The performances, then, are brilliant. The writing is very effective for the most part, moving between genres and tones with accomplished ease. There are some monster action scenes across the season and, without their usual infinite buckets of money and six months of CGI rendering to fall back on, the Wachowskis resort to giving us some in-camera, practical stunts, wire work and gunfights that are more real and convincing than anything they've done since the original Matrix.
Where I think people will fall off or on the Sense8 bandwagon is the pacing and structure. Sense8 is, for most of its first season, almost an anthology show, just with characters from one story able to help out briefly in another. The focus is clearly on each character's own up-front problems in their own immediate vicinity. The story of what is going on with the sensates, why they can do what they do and who is trying to capture them unfolds very, very slowly in the background and occasional moments of rising to the fore. This slow-burning fuse to the story can be frustrating, but only if you view the series through the prism of "What is the answer to this mystery?" If, on the other hand, you engage with the characters it's not a problem. Viewer patience is eventually rewarded in the final two episodes of the season when the ongoing mystery explodes into prominence, a very nice car is set on fire and two of the sensates finally actually meet for real.
Other problems? Er, the main title sequence and music are both pretty underwhelming, which is odd as Netflix actually had a great potential one they used in their trailers (the one set to Weshley Arms's cover of "Need You Tonight") and the rest of the soundtrack is pretty good. That's about it.
The first season of Sense8 (****½) is messy, weirdly-paced and sometimes misses the profundity it is aiming for to such a degree that it is inadvertently hilarious. It's also phenomenally well-written, often beautifully-directed (this is easily the Wachowskis' best directing job since the first Matrix film) and tremendously human. It's bold, experimental and offbeat in a way that none of Netflix's other shows - no matter how well-made - are, or have even tried to be. Sense8 shoots for the stars and perhaps falls short, but its ambition is breathtaking, its scale epic and its characters both charming and compelling. It is available to watch through Netflix now. Season 2, which is wrapping up production now, will air on Netflix in early 2017.