(Note: This article discusses sexual topics, and some links in this article contain mild, nonsexual nudity.)
You may know of Sense8 from the commercials Netflix pushed in the weeks leading up to and after its release, or just from emphatic Facebook posts about how awesome it was. It’s a lot to take in, and I’m still reeling from the intensity of it months later. There were a lot of strong points, but upon later reflection, it has some pretty annoying elements that prevent me from fully enjoying it.
For those who haven’t seen the series yet, here’s a quick summary. One day, eight people across the globe wake up with mental connections to one another. They can understand each other’s languages, have conversations with each other in their minds, and even temporarily take over each other’s bodies. These people, or “sensates,” consist of a hacktivist in San Francisco, a movie star in Mexico City, a Chicagoan cop, a DJ in London, a bus driver in Nairobi, a safecracker in Berlin, a pharmacist in Mumbai, and a Korean business exec slash underground kickboxer. The plot easily and enticingly winds through each character’s problems, which the other members of the group, referred to as a “cluster,” end up solving together through their newfound mental connection. As the cluster faces such challenges as stopping eager Mexican tabloids from exposing Lito’s secret boyfriend, to helping Capheus get AIDS medicine for his mother, they find that a shadowy organization is hunting them down for reasons yet unknown.
On the plus side, Sense8 managed to pack a wide range of characters into their cast, which included the LGBT community. Nomi is a trans woman dating another woman, and their screentime showcases their experiences with several communities in San Francisco, which range from good to terrible. Conversely, Lito is hiding his sexuality from the press, and he and his boyfriend end up with a beard-slash-sort-of-third-partner who stumbles upon their relationship.
The show also makes an effort to not be too U.S.-centric, and spends significant amounts of time on nearly every other continent. Later, Kala explains her mental balance of her scientific work and deep Hindu faith, specifically to Ganesh, in an excellent piece of dialog. Sun gives a great speech about how she chooses to channel her emotions into her fighting, rather than lose them completely along with what she sees as her humanity. There’s also a (mental) orgy maybe two-thirds of the way into the season. (Sense8 is rated R for sexy reasons, and also for graphically violent reasons. Wolfgang fires a rocket launcher into a car! Get hyped.)
The cinematography was also wonderful. The scenes where the characters slide back and forth into each other’s mental space feel real and almost intimate. When two sensates are speaking, the presence of the other feels real, but isn’t visible to anyone else. There’s no cheesy scenes when “real” people walk through the sensates, which actually helped keep a surreal air to the conversations.
On the other hand, some things definitely rubbed me the wrong way, particularly how the Wachowskis treated non-white characters. Interestingly, there is an apparent choice of who is sexualized in the show. Remember that orgy? Sun, Kala and Capheus are mysteriously not present. Nomi is and her African-American girlfriend Amanita (played by Freema Agyeman, who played Martha in Doctor Who), do have sex pictured on screen in the show, and both participate in the aforementioned orgy, but it’s still odd that the other non-white characters are left out. We’re never given a reason why the three seem to just plain not have sex. Kala’s absence is relatively justifiable, as she balks at sex in a few scenes, but Sun and Capheus are just sidelined. If they’re asexual, wonderful, but please make that clear. To further prove a point about the show’s preference for lighter skin tones, look at Lito Rodriguez and his involvement. Lito, his boyfriend Hernando, and their accidental beard Daniela are Latinx, but have fairly light skin, and are all involved in multiple sex scenes. They also have the added “bonus” of having more European features than, say, Sun, who is undeniably East Asian. Basically, the Wachowskis had better have good reasons for specifically picking the three non-white characters with relatively darker skin tones to leave out of the sexy, sexy hot tub scenes.
Overall, I enjoyed Sense8 and would recommend it, but I do want more from it. There’s the sense that the Wachowskis could take a step further imaginatively, to go beyond only showcasing tourist attractions, to dream up non-stereotypical plotlines, to include some interracial couples that don’t include a white person. There is also the still-unanswered question of who is after the sensates and why. Sense8 was wonderfully violent, gay, and worldly, but I’m looking forward to a second season that takes what was presented in the first, and runs further with the direction it’s trying to go. Hopefully, it does this with another singing scene set to something as iconic as “What’s Goin On.”