The new Netflix series, created by Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix alongside J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5, has inspired an online fandom thousands strong, and here's why.
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD
Reviews for Sense8, the new Netflix original series, have been mixed so far. Critics still don't know what to make of it. Even the positive reviews point out flaws, presenting them in a way that the drawbacks seem equal to the many positive aspects of this show, so that potential viewers are skeptical even before giving it a chance.
To avoid spoilers, some reviews feel incomplete. Slate called it a “Queer Masterpiece”, focusing on one specific scene in episode 9, where two queer characters bonded over their own coming out experiences. It is, in fact, a fantastic scene, and while Sense8 is definitely super queer friendly, this review focuses on one side of a multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional project. Across the board, (with some noted exceptions) critics seem to be stuck more on this show’s queer characters or minimal storytelling flaws than on the story it is trying to tell.
Still, this is still better than the negative reviews, which have been negative. My favorite so far is one published this week by Spanish outlet Notas.org, which referred to the show as a literal abortion and in its closing sentence “as a final and unnecessary confirmation of a vacuum as absolute as it is pretentious” (translation mine).
As someone who loves intelligent media and cinema, Sense8 resonated with me on a level that left me emotionally numb for several days. There are some flaws, yes, and there are lines that will make your eyes roll to the back of your head for sure, but these flaws are minimal, and often happen when experimental projects are obligated to have mass appeal: some parts are unsatisfying. You can't make everyone happy all of the time.
This is what frustrates me about the critical reviews. It’s a little dumb to complain that you don’t understand something while simultaneously faulting it for the parts that have been watered down to make it easier to digest. It’s like eating a large sandwich and getting mayonnaise on your hands on the first two bites. It’s annoying, it’s a little disgusting, but we all know you should still eat your sandwich because it’s delicious.
For those who love the show, and for those who don’t know much about Sense8 or tried and don’t understand it, this is my own fan girl perspective on why you should be watching Sense8, why you should be talking about it, and why it’s slowly taking over the internet with no designs on stopping.
So, let’s unpack this delicious sandwich Netflix has made for us, shall we?
Sense8 is a series about eight individuals from different parts of the world who become emotionally and psychically linked. The first episode, "Limbic Resonance" opens as Angelica Turing, played by my favorite mermaid and snake-named-murderess-for-hire Daryl Hannah, gives “birth” to the group. All eight sensates experience seeing Angelica in some way as this happens, but having little explanation for what they're experiencing they go about their daily lives more or less per usual, some walking away with headaches or other physical reactions that they can’t fully explain.
For the first two episodes the audience gets to watch what going back to their daily lives really means for each of these characters, and that in part is what loses some of the critics. Not much is explained because the audience learns as the characters learn. So they are left with two choices: sit back and relax, knowing that things will be explained eventually as the show continues, or work to figure out what is going on. And Sense8 does tell you what it is, through dialogue, visuals, and its own episode titles, but it takes work. And that what makes this show, because it actively asks audiences to take the red pill willingly, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Sense8 was developed with two groundbreaking concepts in mind: as “an examination of politics, sexuality, gender identity” and “…about the ways technology simultaneously unites and divides us.” Sense8 season one is thus very much a character study involving different characters with different backgrounds, cultural influences, and gender experiences. It is a positivity-laced reflection on society that shows audiences what we are and what we can become if we just worked together, all wrapped up in a big, heaping dose of empathy.
Sense8 is all empathy, and this loses some critics as well. For those used to seeing white cisgendered characters getting the majority of screen time while characters of color are often cast as filler, Sense8 offers a confusing change of pace. But for those who have been begging for more diversity in casting, Sense8 is a gift from Ganesha himself. The characters are so dammed likable that you don’t just feel empathy for them. No, by the end of episode 12 you will want to take them all home and raise them with the kind of dedication of a hopelessly devoted parent whose child can do no wrong.
Will Gorski is the first character we meet after the credits. Played by Brian J. Smith, Will is a Chicago cop who is still haunted by the memory of a little girl named Sara Patrell, who went missing when Will was only a boy. Will’s father, played by Joe Pantoliano (a.k.a “Holy shit it’s that guy!” in my house) was once a celebrated police officer in his own right and handled Sara’s case when she went missing. Sara is mentioned several times throughout the season, and it is heavily implied (and confirmed by a Sense8 wikia page) that Patrell was a fellow sensate who made eye contact with Will as a child. Will, a child himself, saw Sara as a ghost. He flashes back to her several times throughout the season, hinting that not only was she his first experience interacting with another sensate, but that she will be part of a larger mystery as the show continues.
Played by Tuppence Middleton, Riley is an incredible DJ living in London. She seems to be the most emotionally open of the group. As others experience some sensory changes, Riley is the first one who “visits” the other sensates (Sun is the first to visit the church where they all see Angelica, but this doesn’t quite count). Riley’s musical sense and connection is also peppered throughout the show. In one scene in the first episode she listens to Kettering by The Antlers, and the lyrics are absolutely heartbreaking and reflective of her emotional turmoil. As the series progresses, Riley’s connection to music is key to the plot, and to the relationship the sensates develop with each other.
Played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Lito is a popular Mexican actor who is afraid to come out publicly as a gay man for fear of damaging his career (this is mentioned on the Wikipedia page so it’s okay to put it here). Lito has the most personal growth of all the characters. At first, he seems to be full of self-loathing, referring to himself as a liar and even risking his friends in order to protect his career, but Lito grows. He is instrumental to the group and is at times hilarious to watch. His relationship with Hernando is probably the most adorable thing you will ever see.
Played by Bae Donna, Sun is a Seoul business executive and a bad ass kickboxing star. However to her immediate family, Sun is seen as little more than her gender and is often dismissed entirely. Her character offers a great exploration of the expectations set on women in different cultures, and how, no matter how powerful you may be, systemic inequality can render you powerless if you let it. But Sun doesn’t let it, and she is unequivocally bad ass.
Played by Tina Desai, Kala is what the kids on Tumblr call a beautiful cinnamon roll, too good for this world, too pure. An university-educated Mumbai pharmacist and devout Hindu, Kala is stuck between a rock and a hard place, engaged to a man she does not love in a society that tells women that the most important thing they can ever do in the history of everdom is to get married. While Kala’s parents seem unconditionally supportive, Kala is on the cusp of wanting to respect the same traditions she grew up with while creating something new.
We first see Wolfgang, played by the impossibly chiseled Max Riemelt, at his grandfather’s funeral, and it pretty much goes downhill from there. Wolfie has family Issues. Raised in an environment where organized crime is the seemingly the only means of survival, Wolfgang learned to survive at the expense of his own soul. His only friend Felix Bernner, played by Maximilian Mauff, seems to be Wolfgang’s only anchor until the sensates connect, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to save Wolfgang from his death wish.
Capheus a.k.a. “Van Damme”
Capheus, played by Aml Ameen, is a Matatu bus driver in Nairobi with a contagious sense of optimism. Capheus is the most impoverished member of the sensate cluster. When he is introduced to the audience, he is taking care of his sick mother who is dying of AIDS and needs appropriate medication. Capheus runs a small transportation business to pay for his mother’s medication, but it’s not enough. When his ability to get his mother the medicine she needs is threatened, Capheus is forced to go against some very dangerous people to survive.
Jamie Clayton, Nomi Marks is the last character to be introduced. Nomi is a trans woman and former hacktivist living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita, played by Freema Agyeman, a.k.a. Martha Jones from Doctor Who. Lana Wachowski, who is a trans woman herself, wrote Nomi’s character with some autobiographical aspects, and it shows. Nomi knows who she is despite anyone’s objections, and her character arc drives the first few episodes. Her story is a very real example of what trans people must suffer through. In one heartbreaking scene in the second episode, Nomi’s mother refuses to call her by her new name, stating “What kind of name is Nomi? Have you ever heard of anyone named Nomi? You were Michael before you came out of me, and you will be Michael until they put me in my grave.”
What Sense8 Does Right
1. The Nuances
One complaint from critics is that the characters are tropes, all living in major cities with problems that are stereotypical to their class and structure. But they are portrayed in such a loving, nuanced way, that they do not feel like tropes.
For example, the complete erasure of identity that Nomi experiences from her mother echoes the very real bigotry and hate that many trans people have to deal with. Nomi, whose name may easily be a shortened version of "No Michael" to answer her mother's question, chooses to sever ties with her family to be her true self. This decision alone resonates deeply with audiences. While other portrayals may have Nomi’s character reconcile with her family to guarantee a happy ending, Nomi here gives no fucks, turning away and never looking back.
2. The Characters
Capheus’s boundless optimism even though he is in one of the poorest areas in the world is severely contagious. The portrayal of women, not only Nomi but Sun, Riley and Kala offers a breath of fresh air. They are characters that are strong but also layered and damaged and interesting, and absolutely no one is objectified in this show. In part, I am kind of surprised that the feminist news outlets haven't jumped all over this show, because the female characters are portrayed in a way feminists have been asking for a very long time.
3. The Relationships
The adorable relationships, not only among the sensates but the supporting characters as well. Hernando is sweet and refined, and you can see his love for Lito in his eyes. Dani is a pushy Latina that grows on you as the show continues. Amanita says the most eye rolling lines of the show, but she is so energetic, stunning and loves Nomi so much that you can forgive her. Diego is a great friend to Will when he needs it most. And Riley’s father, who is seriously so adorable I could cry, makes you feel so warm inside.
4. The Visuals
Sense8 has some great examples of Pure Cinema. Shot entirely on location, the sets are stunning and breathtaking. You can also watch key scenes in Sense8 with the volume off and actually gain more, because there are many Easter eggs scattered across the show. Sense8 knows that the way we watch and share information about media is evolving. We don't just watch new shows, we share them, screenshot them, gif them and examine them for Easter eggs, and Sense8 delivers. I have watched the entire series at least three times and I am still noticing new things in various scenes.
5. The Music
When one of your main characters is a highly praised DJ, your music better deliver, and it does. The Sense8 soundtrack is an eclectic mix of old and new, popular and lesser known acts, all which fit perfectly in their corresponding scenes.
6. The Sex Scenes
Oh em gee, the sex. There is a lot of sexy sex in this show. There is a sex scene in the first episode, and for a fraction of a second an adult toy was plopped on the screen in all its slimy, post-coital glory, and that what Sense8 does. It shows you what it is and doesn't apologize for it.
For all the sex, there is no cisgender sex in this season (Edit: there totally is). There is girl on girl, guy on guy, and some girl on guy, on guy, on guy, on guy (it makes sense when you watch it, and then you won’t stop watching it).
7. The Payoff
If you stick with Sense8 through the end, the payoff is both satisfying and leaves you wanting more. It is a complete story that hints at a greater arc, and you wont be able to wait to see what comes next. You will watch it and talk about it for weeks after its over.
How Sense8 Will Shape The Future Of Media
Remember a little movie called The Matrix? Remember what a big deal it was when it came out? Remember what a game changer it was? Yeah, today people love to nitpick The Matrix movies, but at the time The Matrix offered a completely new concept: Shoot em' up kind of movies could be both action packed and interesting, with an unique style and a philosophy. This was HUGE when The Matrix came out, and it has influenced the way we make movies ever since.
Sense8 will change media because of the things it does well, and because it inspires empathy with its viewers. It resonates with the audience, and that is instrumental to its success. I pretty much said the same thing about Twilight when it was only one book. One Facebook fan group alone is nearly 10 thousand strong, and the numbers are only poised to grow. That still not counting Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram fans.
In part, I have the sneaking suspicion that the reason Netflix has yet to confirm a season renewal is because they are waiting for the internet to do what it does best, as the beautiful and strong hive mind that it can be: to not only demand for more seasons of Sense8, but to demand more media and TV shows to be as intelligent as Sense8. With a reported 900,000 Netflix ratings of 4.2 to 5 stars, and fans watching it straight through, five or six times, Netflix would be dumb not to renew this show.
So to close: Sense8 is here to stay. Sense8 will be everywhere. Sense8 is amazing. Sense8 is intelligent. Sense is the future. I know that because I am also a we.
TL; DR: You Should Be Watching Sense8 If:
• You enjoy intelligent television.
• You want diversity in casting.
• You are a feminist.
• You like sex.
• You love visually stunning shows.
• You like action.
• You need something new to watch.
• You enjoyed The Matrix.
• You're a Hitchcock fan.
• You're bored.
• You're a person of color.
• You're not a person of color.
• You want to feel more for mankind.
• You want something to challenge you.
• You have a Netflix account.
• You want television to be better.
• You're alive.
This article was originally posted on andreaobaez.com