Review of: Sense8

Reviewed by:
On July 12, 2015
Last modified:January 2, 2016


"I don’t give five-star reviews lightly, but I do believe that if a TV show does what it set out to do, the rating is deserved; Sense8 does an exceptional job at challenging the way we think about distance, diversity, action, and suspense."

Could Sense8 do for science fiction what The Matrix did for action films? Sense8 is a Netflix Original sci-fi/thriller developed and produced by the Wachowski siblings, creators of The MatrixV-for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas. The show, released June 5 2015, does an exceptional job at challenging the way we think about distance, diversity, action, and suspense. It follows eight people across the world who suddenly find themselves psychically bonded. They share experiences (even sexual ones, which turns into a strange metaphysical orgy at one point), knowledge and skills, sights and sounds. Each character has a conflict of their own, from a bride-to-be questioning her wedding plans to stolen diamonds and gang wars. The interconnectness of the characters ties these seemingly disparate storylines together, examining the origin of these powers and the dangerous group, “The Whispers,” that are now hunting them.

The show gets off to a slow start, I’ll admit. Rewatching it, I noticed that it didn’t feel as slow once I was familiar with all of the characters and invested in their individual stories. It likely struggles with trying to introduce 8 vastly different characters simultaneously, while also interweaving scenes of shared memories and experience. There’s a lot going on in the first couple episodes but nothing is really happening yet, which explains the pacing issue. The characters are first introduced individually and later conflicts are hinted at but never fully explored. There is Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Nirobi bus driver; Sun Bak (Doona Bae), a Korean business woman and martial arts fighter; Naomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a transgender hacktivist who took the fall for a hacker friend when she was younger; Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai), a recent graduate from medical school in India who is engaged to her boss’s son; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ spending time in London; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a German diamond thief who recently cracked the “uncrackable” safe that doomed his father; Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a Mexican actor hiding his homosexuality from his work and the public eye; and Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith), a softhearted Chicago cop caught under the weight of his ex-policeman father’s infamy. Until the psychic connections become more evident, it might seem like you are watching the beginnings of 8 different TV shows.

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The wait is worth it when the different stories start to come together. The action picks up in episodes 3 and 4 and it doesn’t stop. Once the show finds its footing, the various perspectives actually keep it from getting stale by lingering on any single event for too long. Each character’s story is told in short bursts that often parallel the other stories in emotional tone or moral. Even if you prefer one character’s story over another’s, the show makes you experience the interconnectedness in a way that keeps all 8 protagonists involved. Nomi struggles with a mother that doesn’t accept her transgender identity, and the show ties these feeling of familial rejection to Wolf’s abusive father, Will’s xenophobic father, and Sun’s indifferent father (questionable father figures seem to be a theme of the show). The show gains momentum as the emotional undertones more thoroughly link the 8 storylines. Of course the Sensates (what the “linked” people are called) can never be Joe the plumber or Wendy from accounting. Each character has a storyline that in and of itself could be its own TV show. The writers are pretty good at alternating action and calm periods, so every character isn’t dodging bullets and getting into fist fights all at once. For example, in episode 9, “Death Doesn’t Let You Say Good-Bye,” Riley mourns her past and learns more about being a Sensate while Kala witnesses the brutal stabbing of her future father-in-law. Later, Will learns more about his origins while Wolf and Lito help each other out of violent situations. The balance is carefully orchestrated and works well to alleviate an overflow of dramatic tension.

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As for diversity, this show goes above and beyond expectations. This is partly why it has generated so much buzz. Nationality is a big part of it: the show has a Kenyan bus driver, a Korean business woman, an Icelandic DJ spending time in London. Never have I seen a single show take on so many different locations at once. However, this means that it can be kind of overwhelming to follow so many individual conflicts. There is also a range of sexual and gender identities represented. Best of all, the show avoids the trope of sexual or gender identity becoming the sole characteristic and conflict of that individual. “I identify as transgender” should not be the only story point for these characters (which is the trap Orange is the New Black fell into, but I digress). Sense8 seems to understand that every character requires more complexity. Nomi is a transgender hacktivist with a checkered past who also identifies as a lesbian. Lito is a gay Mexican actor who hides his sexuality at work and must contend with a strange interloper in his home.

This kind of rich representation is fantastic. But it’s not just who is portrayed, it’s how they are portrayed. Sense8 deals with transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and racism head-on. Many TV shows or movies have a sort of “There! Are you happy now?” mentality to diversity and even when they flaunt a diverse cast they are too afraid (or uninterested?) to give these important issues an honest look. When it is said that Riley, the DJ, “can spin [well] for a girl” there is an immediate reaction: “She can spin [well]. Period.” Or when a business partner implies that Sun, a woman, cannot close deals because women are better for “opening” things, we see the tension between Sun being unable to speak out directly while her fist trembles from clenching so hard. For Nomi, we experience a constant flow of people calling her “Michael” or misgendering her as “he/him” and see that even in the LGTB community, there is prejudice. The conflict feels natural and honest, although devastating.

The scenes where the characters “overlap” and come together to borrow each other’s skills are the most fun and, obviously, really what give the show its unique flare. However, other than being able to DJ, I’m not sure what Riley’s contribution to the group is supposed to be and she seems kind of out-of-place because of it. There was a brief mention of her being more intolerant to drugs while she was in the hospital, but i’m not sure if the writers meant to set that up for use later or whether they aren’t certain what to do with her yet. I was also disappointed that Kala’s science/medical degree didn’t come into play more. She mentions that her education is just as important to her as her marriage at the start of the season but we don’t see her using her skills at work or through the other Sensates for more than a brief moment or two. She is relegated to a “hesitant bride” until near the end of the show (she helps Wolf build a bomb from kitchen items) which is disappointing.

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Although we begin to learn about the Sensates, their “birth,” and the organization called BPO that hunts them, there are still many mysteries left to unveil. The show has so much potential to expand on these areas and although there has been some confusion over whether we are getting a season 2, anybody who gives it a chance will see that it’s far too unique and rich to be put to rest just yet.

About Carmen (11 Articles)
B.A., M.A. Now waking up to the ocean breeze in beautiful Vancouver, BC, Canada. Playstation and Nintendo fangirl. PS Vita enthusiast and advocate. Avid reader and writer. Loves school, yoga, writing, chillin' in cyberspace, and spontaneous road trips.