Sense8 – Good, But Not Gr8

June 18, 2015

Sense8 is a Netflix original series developed by the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5).  It tells the story of eight people around the world who suddenly become linked in such a way that they begin to experience each other’s thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, becoming part of a shared consciousness.  They’re referred to on the show as “Sensates”, making the title a play on the word and their number.  Get it?

When I saw the trailer for Sense8, I was excited because it looked like it would be an action packed thriller with a complex plot.  However, this definitely wasn’t the case.  That’s not to say that Sense8 was bad, because it wasn’t – it just wasn’t what I was expecting based on the trailer.  

Speaking of expectations, there was also a pretty wide variance when it came to how good I was expecting Sense8 to be, seeing as how the Wachowskis created The Matrix, which was awesome, and the sequels, which weren’t.  They also did Cloud Atlas, which I personally loved.  There is also a huge inconsistency in the work of J. Michael Straczynski, because he did the TV show Babylon 5, which was an amazingly complex and well-structured story, but he also wrote the train wreck Ninja Assassin which is ridiculously bad, and not even in a fun way.  This being the case, I prepared myself for the most groundbreaking work in years, or the worst thing since Jaden Smith was told he could act.

Sense8 is a show that’s very character driven instead of plot driven, with most of the series focused on character development over story.  Sense8 does a great job of introducing the audience to the main characters and making each character unique, believable, and relatable.  I would say that Sense8‘s biggest strength is taking characters that could very easily be bland or cliché and crafting them into well-rounded, compelling individuals.  That’s not to say that Sense8 doesn’t make use of character archetypes, but the characters never become full-on stereotypes.  

Here is a breakdown of the Sensates, which is very brief, so as to avoid any spoilers:

Capheus – a van driver in Nairobi who is struggling to get his HIV-infected mother the drugs she needs to survive.

Sun Bak – a Korean businesswoman living in Seoul with a high ranking position in her father’s company, who is an excellent martial artist.

Nomi Marks – a trans woman blogger and former hacker living in San Francisco.

Kala Dandekar – a Hindu pharmacist in Mumbai, who is conflicted over her engagement.

Riley – an Icelandic DJ living in London

Wolfgang – a safecracker in Berlin with ties to the underworld

Lito Rodriguez – a famous actor living in Mexico City

Will Gorski – a Chicago police officer

Each Sensate has their own subplot dealing with whatever problems they happen to be facing in their individual lives, and that’s pretty much the structure of the show – a series of subplots.  Yes, there is a main overall story, but with the balancing act the show does with the numerous stories it’s telling simultaneously, it comes across as just another subplot, albeit slightly more glorified.

From time to time each Sensate gets help from another member of the “cluster”, which is the term the show uses to refer to a collective of Sensates.  Whether this is helping beat up thugs with someone else’s fighting skills or even just moral support, whenever there is an issue that needs to be dealt with, one Sensate is there to help out the other.  However, the connection is not limited to just helping with problems, as the Sensates also share moments of happiness, and yes, at times, intimacy.  This connection is the very heart of Sense8, because it’s how the characters interact with each other and their surroundings that the show spends the most time developing.

Another strength of Sense8 is the remarkably diverse cast.  Each Sensate is from a different part of the world, with completely different cultures and values.  Sure, they have different skillsets to bring to the group, but sometimes a foreign perspective on events is all that’s needed to help another member.

For all that Sense8 gets right, it still has some pretty significant flaws.

It is slow – There are times when Sense8 crawls along, especially in the early episodes.  This is to be expected with any story, because usually the first part is exposition and character introduction, and to be fair, that’s a lot of what causes the show to drag at the start, especially considering the show has to do this for eight different characters.  On top of that, since it’s largely character driven, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, it just further contributes to how slow the plot progresses.  In the first few episodes, it feels like half the show is an indie song playing over a montage of the Sensates living their lives.  Even when things start to pick up, it can only go so quickly due to the fact that there are so many storylines happening at the same time.  Due to the large number of subplots, I’m honestly not sure how it could have been handled any better, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there are times when it feels as if nothing is happening.

It is overly thematic – The theme of Sense8 is that all people – regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc – have value and should be accepted and treated with kindness and respect.  It’s a great theme and a wonderful message to spread, and I completely wholeheartedly support that message.  However, throughout Sense8, but most noticeably in the early episodes, plot and character development take a backseat in order to drill into the audience that this is the message they should be receiving from this show.  It’s incredibly heavy-handed and feels like a Public Service Announcement on equality.  Watching it early on made me feel incredibly conflicted, because, while I share the views espoused, I don’t like being preached to, and it felt like a sermon.  

Even the very premise of the show, that eight people from around the world become intertwined into a group consciousness, is just a metaphor for how we as a global society are ultimately one people who can greatly benefit from our own diversity.  Combined with the lack of subtlety in delivering this message, it feels like a parable out of a holy book.  Granted, it would have to be a modern holy book written by progressive and tolerant people, but it still feels that way.

All things considered, there are a lot worse things to promote, and again, I must emphasize that it’s not the messaged that’s bad, it’s the execution.

Short Version

Sense8 is a good, character driven show, which if you’re expecting an intense plot centered show, can be a bit of a surprise.  Once you get used to the style of the show, it gets much better.  Also, at times it can be a little preachy when it comes to the main message of the show, but since it’s a message of tolerance, kindness, and acceptance, I think it’s ok.

The show isn’t for you if the following is true for you:

  • you like fast paced plots

  • you don’t care about character development

  • you like lots of action

  • you’re sexist

  • you’re racist

  • you’re homophobic

If none of those apply to you, I recommend Sense8, because the pros greatly outweigh the cons, and it winds up actually being pretty good.

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