I recently finished the first season of Sense 8, a sci-fi show created for Netflix by J. Michael Straczinski and the Wachowskis. Since I don’t have a Star Wars post today, I figure why not give it a review. The concept of the show is interesting. Eight people scattered around the world suddenly develop the ability to communicate telepathically and share one another’s knowledge and skills. Of course it doesn’t take long to find out they’re going to be hunted by a big bad who has similar powers.
The main characters are sensate, which can man any number of things in fiction. In this case it means the eight protagonists can share one another’s headspace in strange and fabulous ways. Their telepathic link works as s sort of bilocation. They don’t just hear one another’s voices in their heads, they can actually project themselves to the same location as other members of the group. They can even “let one another in,” a sort of consensual possession which leads to some truly weird sexual encounters before they learn to control their powers properly, and to a few awesome fight scenes. If you judge it according to the standards of typical American television, this show is w-a-a-a-y out there, people.
Here are a few things I liked and didn’t like about the show.
1. The acting and characterization are the best parts, and the casting is good. The characters, once you get to know them, are compelling.
2. The camera work is brilliant at times, and gives the series a cinematic feel, which is a strength with a piece of speculative weirdness like Sense 8.
3. Lots of non-heteronormative characters are depicted in believable, loving relationships, and physical intimacy between same sex & transgender couples is actually depicted in the screen. This is a big one. The show is much more sexually explicit than I like my tv to be — definitely not something to watch while the kids are awake. But for the most part, the show gets this one right.
4. There’s a comic shout-out to the Matrix early on in the series that absolutely cracked me up. You’ll know that one when you see it.
1. Sense 8 suffers from one of the problems Game of Thrones does: loads and loads of characters separated geographically and dealing with their own subplots. I never felt like I was seeing enough of any one character. I almost gave up halfway through the first episode, which introduced all eight, because the first 40 minutes is an incoherent mishmash of opening subplots and the incoherence feels deliberate to me. The show (sorta) brings it all together in the last ten minutes of episode 1 and ends with a good hook, which is why I kept watching. This way of organizing a long story works much better in print than it does on tv.
2. The pacing is uneven. Especially in the last half of the season, there were long stretches where I was thinking “ok, I don’t want to see this scene until you tell me what it has to do with the main storyline. And can we please get back to the action now?”
3. Despite the fact that Sense 8 deals well with LGBTQ relationships, stereotypical tropes abound in the characterization. Why does the Korean character have to be an underground kickboxer with anger issues and a wise sensei? Why does the German character have to be a tall, blonde criminal from an abusive family? And *EGAD* one of the American characters is a second-generation Chicago police officer with a soft heart.
Add in a pixie woman from Iceland who deals with a horrific tragedy by retreating into the London club scene, drugs, and dangerously unhealthy relationships, and well. That’s half the cast. Scattering your main characters around the world and making them diverse is good, but building them from standard, predictable tropes takes a some of the shine off. I will say, though. This wasn’t an issue for me while I was actually watching. Could be that I’m not as sensitive to this stuff as I should be. Could be that the characters are well-drawn enough to compensate for the problem. Your mileage will vary with this one.
4. The show goes a bit overboard with graphic depictions of childbirth. Now, I’m not squeamish about anatomy and such depicted in film, and at least the producers worked hard to make it realistic. But I’m talking frontal shots of bloody, crowning heads. Seven or eight of them. Everyone has their limits with this sort of thing, and Sense 8 exceeded mine.
5. The ending falls flat. I was thinking for the first nine episodes that the story was building to a truly interesting moment, but that just never materialized. The finale is a standard “rescue the princess from the castle of the evil overlord” episode. It’s cleverly-enough done, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen. I want more out of a show with this much potential.
6. And finally, the big one. In terms of deciding whether or not to give another 12 hours of my life to this program, should Netflix decide to order a second season, this is what gives me the most pause. The whole story relies on extranormal phenomena, but just how, exactly, the characters’ powers and weaknesses work is not explained adequately.
Sense 8 risks running into the same problem Lost did. I like entertainment with fantastical elements, but I want to know the rules of the paranormal game up front so I can adjust my expectations accordingly. I don’t want to get two or three seasons in and find out things don’t actually work the way the authors led me to believe they do, or to end up feeling like the producers of the show are using the fantastical stuff to sidestep the need to actually resolve plot lines.
Watch this show if you enjoy at least two of these: utter weirdness, contemporary sci-fi with a dystopian twist, or Big Sexy Drama with martial arts and explosions thrown in. But don’t expect too much. If you’re looking for straight action adventure from your Netflix and a satisfying storyline, give Daredevil a try first. I’m on to Marco Polo myself. I think that one has real potential, but then, I’m a sucker for period fiction.
I’m developing a rating system for my reviews, and I’ve not settled on what to use in place of stars, nor created graphics. On a five-point scale, I rate Sense 8 a 3.5, and 1.5 of that is solely for the acting, fight choreography, and camera work.
Thanks to Hannah for discussing this show with me and convincing me to give it a chance. I find it worth watching and writing about, and I am interested to see what Hannah comes up with if she decides to post about it once she finishes the season.