Sometimes a show comes along that is destined to be the definition of a divisive viewing experience. Add the fact that at the helm of such a show are two people whose works are controversial and you’ve got something on your hands that could be a major disaster. Somehow, in my opinion at least, the end result of Sense8 is really good, and based on all its moving parts it shouldn’t be. Magically, the show works and is an addictive and adrenaline-charged good time!
The creators and directors of the majority of the episodes in the first season of Sense8 (Netflix’s new original series) are Andy and Lana Wachowski, collectives known as The Wachowskis. These directors are infamous for skyrocketing to fame with The Matrix: a film that not only was extremely successful but also changed in many ways the cinematic landscape. Yet after such an auspicious product, the directors churned out a series of films that either didn’t connect with audiences or were, reportedly, downright awful. After the horrifying Matrix sequels I personally stopped watched later outings, so I cannot personally attest to how bad Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending are – but reviews and friends’ reactions kept me away. The reason I gave the show a change is simple: I have been quite thrilled with a lot of the content that Netflix so far has ushered in and based entirely on my goodwill for the website I decided to give this new series a shot, and once again I am glad I did. Rounding out the directors are frequent Wachowski collaborators with great credentials of their own: James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). The talent is definitely there. Some viewers may be taken aback at some scenes involving violence, sexuality and nudity – it’s definitely more overt than we are used to, and sometimes gratuitous; yet the overall story had me hooked enough to not mind the few scenes that may be deemed a little forced and controversy-seeking.
The premise is anything but simple, which makes it a show that brings one to wonder how it ever got through an initial pitch. The series opens with Daryl Hannah writhing in pain on a mattress in what looks like an abandoned building. Suddenly Naveen Andrews (Said from Lost) shows up and the viewer realizes that he’s not actually there. Is she hallucinating? Is he a ghost? What is going on? Something is said about transferring powers, a seemingly bad man shows up, a plea to keep “them” safe is heard and then BANG! Five minutes in and Hannah has shot herself in the mouth.
The first two episodes are confusing and I could see how based on them some people could give up on the series, deeming it weird, unfocused, and simply all over the place. We are dizzyingly transported to eight different locales, each with individual story lines and with a bunch of secondary characters. There is a Korean business woman living in Seoul with daddy and mommy issues, a German safe-robber in Berlin with familial ties to underground crime, an Indian woman from Mumbai who is about to marry a nice guy she doesn’t love, an Icelandic DJ living in London with a drug problem and a father back in Iceland she misses, a Chicago cop trying to prove himself, a Mexico City closeted actor, a San Francisco-based transgender woman who is a blogger and very much in love with her girlfriend, and a man in Nairobi who drives a bus while trying to navigate the dangerous Kenyan streets. It sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? As television viewers we are used to large casts nowadays, but we usually get them in one contained space such as a hospital, or a law firm. The Walking Dead tried to separate its core cast, and only managed to do so for a small handful of episodes. Trying to keep track of eight different and separate story lines in eight different cities around the globe? Not something you see every day.
Something special and wonderful begins happening around episode three, though. Suddenly, each story line begins feeling like a different type of viewing experience. The Mexico set story takes on the characteristics of a telenovela, the Korean scenes become a bad-ass martial arts film, the Indian set becomes grounds for epic Bollywood inspired sequences, and so on. Each setting becomes so vivid and fleshed out, I couldn’t help but stay hooked. The acting is on point. And the cinematography is out of this world! It’s almost a synesthetic experience to view this film, as though through one’s eyes flavors can be tasted, textures can be felt, and emotions experienced as though there.
But what do all these separate stories have to do with one another? It turns out the eight people aforementioned are sensates, special humans with the ability to telepathically communicate with one another and when said sensates belong to a specific cluster their powers and abilities to interact with each other are magnified. We get to see the beginning of such phenomena in the first season, but the creators have decided that they wanted us to really get to know each member of the cluster in their own environment, and really flesh out each member’s personal life – and so communication and connection amongst them is kept to a relative minimum, as is the central threat to their existence. This is an innovative and ultimately successful decision, as it builds tension but also makes each story well-rounded and non-gratuitous. I now cannot wait for a second season to see what starts happening when these people meet and start working together in more meaningful ways. What else could you want from a sci-fi weird show that on paper should never have worked in the first place?