During some TV binges, there is a specific moment when you just know for sure you’re on board. While watching Sense8, that moment came for me in episode four. One character begins singing karaoke—specifically, “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes. As he sings, we see seven other characters, located over the world, begin to sing the same song. This happens because these characters are “sensates” who share a unique mental and emotional link.
It’s a bit of a confusing premise, yes, which is part of why it took me four episodes to be completely sold. The pilot in particular is a bit disorienting. In addition to presenting a complicated sci-fi premise, you are meeting eight characters who very rarely physically interact with one another. There is also, of course, a larger conspiracy at play, involving an older sensate named Jonas (Lost‘s Naveen Andrews) who is trying to protect the new sensate cluster from being discovered by his evil counterpart, Whispers (Terrence Mann), who abuses the sensate powers to hunt down others of his kind for sinister reasons.
Sense8 is the brainchild of Lana and Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix fame as well as J. Michael Straczynski. The fact that it calls Netflix home makes perfect sense for this unique, odd, ambitious show. The production logistics must rival Game of Thrones, and the cerebral concept is a hard sell. One season of 12 episodes was released last year, and a second is currently in the works.
Something I found impressive about Sense8 is that while the perspective shifts between eight characters, I felt invested in every storyline. There was no point-of-view character where I would groan and think “oh, this again,” as there often is in shows and novels with this structure. The eight sensates are so interesting and diverse that there is someone for everyone to like and connect to. There’s Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago cop obsessed with an unsolved murder from his childhood. He quickly bonds with Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ living in London who is struggling to cope with an unspeakable trauma from her past. Sun (Doona Bae) is a Korean underground kickboxer who must pay the price for her high-powered family’s sins. Capheus (Aml Ameen, although he is being recast for season 2) is a bus driver in Kenya who is struggling to support his mother, who has AIDS. Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is a German criminal who specializes in safe-cracking. He develops a special connection with Kala (Tina Desai), an Indian pharmacist who is unhappily engaged. Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) is a closeted Mexican actor who enters into a sham “relationship” with a female co-star to hide his actual relationship with his live-in boyfriend. Last but certainly not least, Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a trans hacker/blogger living in San Francisco with her girlfriend. It’s a lot to absorb, and don’t be surprised if it takes you a couple episodes to remember everyone’s name and backstory. But, once the sensates start to develop real bonds and “interact” with each other more, the show really begins to gel.
Part of being a sensate is that they can all access each others’ knowledge and skills, including languages. For example, when Nomi needs to make a quick escape but doesn’t know how to drive, she is able to quickly tap into Capheus’s driving skills (to the audience, this presents as her sitting in the passenger seat while Capheus literally drives the car). It makes sense that more than one romantic attraction develops amongst the sensates. There is even a scene that can only be described as an orgy, except that none of the participants are located within 1000 miles of each other. You know, just the usual things you see on television.
That’s part of what I liked about Sense8. It’s definitely not for everyone—the format is unconventional, it’s a bit convoluted and hard to get into at first, and often a bit overwhelming. But I can’t think of a single other television show past or present to compare it to. It’s such an original, different concept. Also, I truly fell in love with these characters. Given the need to service eight leads, you could see how they could easily become trope-y or caricature-esque, but not here. These people are fully realized, three-dimensional, and unlike most characters elsewhere on television. I hope more people decide to give this show a chance—it’s quite the ride.
All twelve episodes of Sense8 season one are currently available on Netflix.