Sense8 is many things, but most of all it’s a paean to diversity in all its forms, nurtured and heralded by the combined forces of the Warchowskis and J Michael Straczynski, which should make it Matrix meets Babylon 5.
In practice it fetes connections at every level between people from every corner of the earth and every walk of life, starting with a ravishing title sequence that could easily have come from a National Geographic film, but for the dramatic theme music.
The principle of every possible variant of human endeavour comes through from the start: gender, nationality, race, sexuality, occupation…. pretty much everything. Oops, no, tell a lie: the main eight characters, otherwise known as the “sensates,” are all late 20s to early 30s, slender and good looking. After such a good start, shame that ageist, sizeist, uglyphobic sentiments had to spoil the party. Hey ho, nobody ever said TV had to mirror real life. To illustrate the point about diversity, consider the sensates:
Aml Ameen as Capheus, a compassionate Matatu van driver in Nairobi with a strong sense of justice who is desperately trying to earn money to buy medicine for his mother, who is suffering from AIDS. He enjoys Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s work and has even named his van, ‘Van Damn’ after him.
Given that Lana Warchowski is herself transgender, the inclusion of a sympathetic trans character may not be altogether surprising, but credit to all concerned for focusing on what pulls these characters together rather than what separates them.
The initial connection between them is forged through visions of the death of Anjelica, played by Daryl Hannah. Thereafter the eight possess a super-telepathic link that enables them to experience one another’s lives in a physical sense, then to use their respective skills to help their fellow Sensates out of a fix – and in each case there is an unresolved puzzle or situation in which they need assistance. Cue the sensates appearing out of the blue…
For example, kickboxing legend Sun Bak finds herself unexpectedly in Nigeria to kick the shit out of the baddies threatening to kill her fellow-Sensate Capheus. Taken from her native South Korea without a by-your-leave you could excuse her for being bemused, all the more so since she was kicking the shit out of an opponent in the ring back in Seoul at the time, but with barely a twitch of her well-formed eyebrows she adjusts and wins both bouts by knockouts. Capheus looks the more dazed of the two, quite frankly.
The sections where sensates meet is, perhaps deliberately, disorienting, since the conversation flicks from one location to another, with the implication that the people concerned are simultaneously in two locations, without ever quite leaving the one from which they started – so “beaming up” to another place at will is not quite on the cards. For Sun that is a distinct disadvantage, since she conducts several encounters with fellow-sensates while incarcerated in prison, but this being TV drama you can bet she won’t stay there for too long.
There in a nutshell you have the entire scenario, vaguely enigmatic but without hidden depths. Remember the ambiguity and paranoid feeling that there was always much more under the surface in The X-Files? Here it is more or less a straight fight between good and evil. No cigarette-smoking man, but we do have heroes and villains. Here the principle baddy (apart from those in “normal” life) is a rebel sensate, a man known only as Whispers (Terence Mann.) From Wikipedia:
While trying to both live their lives and figure how and why this connection happened and what it means, a mysterious man named Jonas (Andrews) possessing the same ability tries to help the eight and protect them from another stranger called Whispers (Mann) who is similarly empowered and is hunting them down to tap into their psychic link and capture them all
The drama unfolds from the individual stories of each character and how they gradually bisect one another’s lives and establish a common purpose, helped by an angel and tempted by the devil. It’s true they learn and grow as their lives become more enmeshed, even if they are never quite merge their respective powers like The Avengers or The Fantastic Four. Whatever they are, superheroes the senates are not.
Some critics felt the result was a muddled plotline with lack of continuity, so maybe the relative simplicity of the basic concept is the means by which the scriptwriters chose to keep the audience on board. However, the muddling is a reflection of the difficulty audiences may have of holding eight diverse scenarios in their minds simultaneously, let alone how characters relate to one another. Some audiences struggle with more than one concept at a time, so Sense8 was never going to please all the people all the time.
There is the sensationalist stuff that adds nothing much: a musical interlude just to catch up with all the sensates, in case you had forgotten any of them. Some of the scenes seem entirely gratuitous too, not least an orgy scene, which switches between straight, gay, threesomes and “hokey pokey, penny a lick”, as the great Mike Harding once put it.
The initial sense of fragmentation is gradually subsumed by action, plots and subplots, but the question is whether there is sufficient strength and clarity of purpose to allow us, the viewers, to identity with the characters and their predicament, or whether their motives and worries all end up as a blur that we take in passively, as if allowing our eyes to graze on a soap opera without taking in any detail or subjecting it to any analysis.
So a mixed bag and a series that doesn’t quite live up to its billing. Maybe there didn’t have to be as many as 8 sensates, and with fewer the distinguished crew might have had more time to develop the characters and to progress their lives. As it is, we gain a snapshot but not too much more. Yes there are a few flashbacks so we can pick up some of the back story on the characters, but somehow they fail to shape up into fully-rounded people, for no fault of their own.
Of the series though, do we feel engaged, involved in the action, like we want to binge-watch the whole series at one sitting? For the most part I found my attention wandering, notably unlike some series I’ve watched recently. In a sense this is a pity, since there are many fine ingredients within the soufflé that you feel disappointed when it doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.