Sense8 Season 1 Review: Extraordinary Tales Of Ordinary People

While we refrain from providing any major spoilers for Sense8, there may be minor spoilers in the article, which will be hidden in a black background unless highlighted by your cursor. Proceed with caution.

It starts with a death; a woman named Angelica shoots herself in the face after giving “birth” (in a very metaphorical sense). It’s not suicide—Angela’s actions trigger a mental and emotional link now shared by a cluster (eight individuals called sensates) across the globe, and she hopes her death ensures their protection from a man who hunts and kills people like them. But, as the series progresses, you’ll find that it’s not that easy to hide.

Characters see recurring visions of Angelica throughout the season.

When imagining a sci-fi television series written and directed by the Wachowski siblings (best known for their work on The Matrix films), there are a few things you might expect from it: strange and wondrous superpowers, stunning fight choreography, underdogs railing against a tyrannical authority, and an equally oppressive status quo. Sense8 does have a slew of well-crafted fight scenes. There’s a shadowy organization with powerful connections seeking to hunt down its protagonists. But if you’re looking for Matrix-like abilities or aliens trying to harvest human DNA, you might be disappointed. Don’t. Sense8 brings something a little more unique to the table. 

Like Heroes, there’s a large roster of characters spanning the globe: a Chicago cop, a South Korean woman, a university-educated woman from Mumbai, a transsexual hacktivist living in San Francisco, a Mexican actor, a bus driver in Nairobi, an Icelandic DJ in London, and a safe-cracker from East Germany. But unlike Heroes, none boasts of any superpowers. What sets them apart is their unique ability to sense and communicate with each other even halfway across the globe, even taking on each other’s skills when needed. Mexican actor Lito, for instance, can tap into German thief Wolfgang’s street fighting abilities or Chicago cop Will’s training to perform believable action scenes for a movie. Hacktivist Nomi can’t drive, but can allow African Capheus to take over her body temporarily during a high-speed car chase. When a character encounters a certain problem he can’t solve, he simply hands over the reigns to another person in the cluster who can. At times, this might feel a little contrived (won’t it be too easy, story-wise, to simply let Sun Bak or Wolfgang take over whenever some ass-kicking is required?), but that’s a problem for future seasons—with only Season 1 to date, it’s still a refreshing and entertaining twist.

How one character is feeling can also affect others in their cluster. When Kala is served a sumptuous meal by her father in India, Wolfgang develops a sudden urge for Indian food in East Germany. Similarly, when he sings karaoke, the other seven break into 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Going On” in unison—this scene is one of the show’s highlights. Hilariously, when Sun Bak gets her period, Lito develops stomach cramps and bursts into tears at random moments without knowing why.

The switching points of view can be jarring at first. The first episode explains little of how they’re connected, only that they had witnessed Angelica’s death and continue to see visions of her. Much of the first season is spent developing each character’s growing awareness of the others in their cluster. (Fortunately, Netflix releases all their season episodes at once, a marketing decision that helps shows like Sense8 that rely on multiple character arcs to tell an overarching plot.)

Will and Riley

While each character comes with some useful skill sets, they also come with emotional and mental baggage. Capheus is an accomplished driver, but finds himself caught up in the criminal underworld in Nairobi when he tries to secure expensive medicine for his AIDS-stricken mother. Policeman Will is haunted by an unsolved case in his youth; he is also the first to investigate Angelica’s death, convinced that it is not a hallucination. Wolfgang steals a cache of diamonds before his cousin can, incurring the ire of his powerful criminal uncle. Nomi is a brilliant hacker with a supportive girlfriend, Amanita, but struggles to be accepted for her sexuality. On the other hand, Lito is a closeted actor whose special skill is “lying,” struggling to keep his relationship with boyfriend Hernando a secret from his fans. Kala, a pharmacist living in conservative India, is engaged to a man she does not love. Sun Bak is easily the strongest fighter of the group but, being a female in South Korea, is still expected to serve as a subordinate to her weak-willed brother.  What abilities Icelandic musician Riley can bring to the cluster are more difficult to pinpoint, disc jockey skills aside—her greatest strength seems to be her will to survive, despite being laden with the one of the most heartbreaking backstories of a character in a TV show.

Still, the series is not without its humor—Kala encounters a naked Wolfgang at a very inopportune moment (spoiler: her wedding.) Lito’s life plays out like one of the Mexican soap operas he stars in, and he’s easily one of the main comic reliefs in the series, and my personal favorite. Capheus’ bus is called the Van Damme, after his favorite action hero.

A pantsless Lito uses his skills to get Wolfgang out of trouble

That said, Sense8 deals with a lot of issues few shows have the courage to acknowledge, much less explore in detail. Aside from the well-rounded and very diverse cast (for example, the actress playing Nomi is herself a transsexual), each character is given roughly the same screen time (excepting perhaps Will, but not by much). The series covers a variety of issues such as feminism, gay rights, and rich privilege. Capheus, the poorest of the eight, is nevertheless the most optimistic and appreciates many of the experiences he gains that other characters take for granted (such as flying in an airplane or listening to an orchestra). Though she’s the strongest-willed character, Sun Bak has very little say in her own life, suggesting that being a strong woman does not necessarily mean she is an empowered one. Kala, though university-trained, is still struggling with her own self-worth. She is a woman of science, but she is also a Ganesha devotee and susceptible to the demands of a patriarchal society, even with an unstereotypically supportive father. It is difficult for her to balance those two sides of her personality, even as she realizes she is falling for someone else (spoiler: and that the reckless and normally aloof Wolfgang feels the same way.). Lito is afraid of being outed, sometimes at the cost of his relationship with Hernando. On the other hand, Nomi is out of the closet but is forced to suffer the stigma of being transsexual, particularly from her disapproving mother. There is no attempt to tell viewers that a certain viewpoint is right or wrong—every narrative simply relays the experiences each character has to suffer in a sympathetic manner, but without being too preachy.

Sun Bak communicates with Capheus in Namibia

That said, the series is not for family viewing. Sex and violence is portrayed throughout the series. (Spoiler: When two of the other characters engage in intercourse with their significant others, a few of the other people in the cluster are unexpectedly thrown into the mental link, resulting in an unintended orgy). Personally, it’s the violence that at times seems more gratuitous than the sex, but your mileage may vary.

Aiding them is a man named Jonas, a sensate from the same cluster as Angelica who provides Will with most of what he knows about their abilities—though his allegiance at times seem circumspect. He is trying to protect them from a man known as Whispers—another sensate spearheading an organization that hunts down and kills other sensates. While Whispers is only physically visible for a few episodes throughout Season 1, his presence remains palpable and his reach extends to numerous medical facilities, biological research centers, and even the FBI.  (Spoilers: He very nearly succeeds in giving Nomi a lobotomy under the pretense of excising a tumor, and captures Jonas and Riley to use as bait to hunt down Will. Unlike the average sensate, he has the ability to track thoughts of those outside his own cluster simply by establishing eye contact.)

Sun Bak (bottom) takes over Nomi’s (in background) body, with Will (left) assisting.

Like the Matrix and Jupiter Ascending, there are some eyebrow-raising moments throughout the season that is more entertaining to watch than it is credible. Are research facilities with high-level security clearance really that short on guards? As good as Sun Bak is, can she really take on five FBI-trained agents at once and win? If Capheus drives a stick shift aboard the Van Damme, how can he drive a car with an automatic transmission? But for all its inconsistencies, Sense8 is exemplary with the things it does convey—the ability to show its viewers the lives of eight ordinary men and women with an uncanny link into each other’s psyche and somehow, without relying on special superpowers, turn them into extraordinary characters well worth the watch.

————————————————

The Pros:

– amazingly diverse and likable cast

– a sympathetic and well-crafted look at modern issues without being preachy

– great action scenes, memorable comic moments

– strong individual arcs and narratives, with many well-thought-out supporting characters

The Cons: 

– needs at least 5-6 episodes to understand the overlying plot that weaves the sometimes disjointed narratives together

– the ability to switch to the sensate most able to fix a problem might seem contrived and could lead to lazy writing somewhere down the road

halfcomic

The Verdict: 4 1/2 Comic Book Guys

One of the best things to come from the Wachowskis in recent memory since The Matrix. A must watch!

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