ByJack Carr, writer at
You are the Princess Shireen of the House Baratheon, and you are my daughter.
Jack Carr

If something is good, you know it's good, right? When I get Chinese takeout and sprawl on the couch to watch The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for the seventh time, I know that what's happening is good. So when you watch something and get that weird feeling of "I'm not sure if that was awful or kind of brilliant", you can be pretty sure it was awful - because if it was actually brilliant, you'd know.

The reason I bring up the awful/amazing theory is Sense8, the Netflix drama imagined, written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski.

Sense8 is the story of eight people across the world, entirely unconnected apart from the telepathic energy they share. They're called "sensates", and their abilities set them apart from the rest of the human race. So obviously, they're being hunted by a shadow organisation because, as we've learned from X-Men, what's different is perceived as dangerous.

The premise is strong. TV shows are almost always rooted to one location, so making Sense 8 a globe-trotting sci-fi adventure with characters on every continent immediately sets it apart from basically everything else you could choose to watch on Netflix or any other channel.

But the Wachowskis' problem has never been their ideas - it's been bringing those ideas together in a coherent way, connecting the threads and making a movie (or a show) that will engage an audience. It's also been characters. Frankly, they have a big problem with characters.

Bullet-time revolutionised SFX in cinema
Bullet-time revolutionised SFX in cinema

Let's take a moment to think back to The Matrix, the movie that started everything for the Wachowskis, and more than that, clearly influenced every action and sci-fi film in the years that followed. Remember Wanted, with Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy? Just one of several films that would never have come to exist without The Matrix. But what can you really tell me about Neo, the blank-faced protagonist of the Matrix trilogy? As a character, he was effectively a white canvas onto which a thrilling story was painted.

Blank canvas syndrome

In truth, most of the Wachowskis' characters have been blank canvases, broad stereotypes who exist to service the plot. There was the speed racer in Speed Racer, a man so anonymous he didn't even have a name. This year's space opera Jupiter Ascending borrowed heavily from the genre's trusty book of tropes - take Balem (Eddie Redmayne), the power-crazed dynastic heir hell-bent on claiming what is rightfully his. You know this character from every sci-fi/dystopian/fantasy novel or movie ever created.

This brings us back to Sense 8. The series has won praise in some quarters for its inclusion of a vast range of minorities rarely seen on TV. Great - that can only be a good thing, right? Among the sensates are:

  • Nomi, a transwoman and hacktivist
  • Sun, a Korean underground kickboxer
  • Capheus, a Kenyan man whose mother has AIDS
  • Lito, a closeted gay Mexican actor
  • Will, a Chicago cop haunted by an unsolved murder
  • Kala, a Hindu woman engaged to be married to a man she doesn't love
Trans actress Jamie Clayton plays Nomi in Sense8
Trans actress Jamie Clayton plays Nomi in Sense8

But perhaps there comes a point where diversifying purely for the sake of having diversity, but not actually bothering to sketch a character out beyond their most stereotypical traits, is kind of pointless. Not every cop has demons. Not every actor is gay, and not every gay person in less liberal countries is closeted.

Don't misunderstand me - I think it's awesome that a series on Netflix which is almost guaranteed a big audience is willing to give visibility to actors of varying nationalities and minorities. But putting them on screen and doing them justice with a well-drawn, rounded character not born solely out of a stereotype are two different things, and it's not a medium Sense8 always achieves.

Perhaps I'm jaded. Perhaps I've just been burned a few too many times by the Wachowskis. But I'm not alone - Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending all received mixed to negative reviews and flopped at the box office, suggesting their scattered, broad style of writing - full of ideas, not short on creativity, but desperately confused in its execution - holds little appeal mainstream audiences.

One day, I'd like to watch a Wachowski project which didn't leave me wondering "was that awful, or actually kind of brilliant?". I'd like to just know. But Sense8 isn't that show.

Sense8 returns to Netflix for Season 2 some time in 2016.


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