Netflix's 'Sense8' Is Genre-breaking, Gorgeous and Transcendent
I was very close to shutting off Sense8 after two episodes and writing a review along the lines of it being just terribly boring and disappointing. But I figured I should give it three, and the last fifteen minutes of that third episode blew me away. I was bored for long stretches of episodes four through six, and again teetered on shutting it off. And then I watched the final six episodes in mounting excitement and trepidation, absolutely convinced that the Wachowskis and Straczynski were going to have the whole thing collapse under its own weight and roll my eyes so far back I could see my brain.
It didn’t. As the music played, and the final episode took a minute of long panning views, I wanted nothing more than to hit play again on the first episode and watch the whole series again.
It’s not that the first few episodes are filler that needed edited down, or that they were filled with inexplicable events that then paid off later, but that they took an amount of time to explore each of the eight (yes, the eight in the title) characters in detail that is simply not done in television or movies. In retrospect it was like a fantastic thousand page novel in which the first 150 pages are just getting all the pieces set up. I love those novels, but I’ve never seen it done in a television series, because there are always plot points and miniature climaxes internalized into each episode. This for sheer pacing reasons is a show that could only ever be made with Netflix’s strategy of releasing an entire season at once because if there were a week between episodes, no one would give the show a chance.
The central premise of the story is that there are individuals among us called sensates who exist in clusters of eight, men and women scattered around the world, and able to feel everything the others are feeling, know everything they know, and take control of each others’ bodies when needed. They are born this way, but don’t “activate” until something happens later in their lives, which is what happens at the beginning of the story to the particular group of eight that the series follows. It’s a slow process, but as they become more used to this ability it becomes something magnificent on the screen, with people changing bodies and relaying information second by second as a life or death situation develops. You can tell I’m being cagey here, because to explain in a way that you would be able to visualize it is to spoil the very beats that make it such a joy of discovery the first time through.
So, I’ll just leave you with this tidbit to get you hooked: telepathic orgy. This is a show that in telling these stories about our inner secrets, doesn’t shy away from love or sex in the least, in all of its varieties, and with equal opportunity for every gender. And more than that though, it doesn’t shy away from intimacies, of the secret ways that we only are when we’re alone, or with the people who we so trust and love that we consider being with them being alone, with no facades or masks.
The eight are being hunted, of course, in what seems at first to be the weakest part of the story. A cliche of the super powerful corporation dedicated to hunting down people like this for unexplained and nefarious purposes, with seemingly endless supplies of resources, government influence, and sociopaths willing to do violence. But the show sets that up only to knock it down, gradually revealing snippets of a truly monstrous antagonist. This is one of the problems with reviews, because I want to sit here and talk to at length of thoughts about Mr. Whisper and Jonas, the sorts of thoughts that you really need to roll around in your own head first as you watch the show.
And you should watch this show. Because while there are parts of the plot that are derivative, the story is wholly gorgeous and beautiful, especially once you get to the end and can reflect on all the rest of it. It is saying different things about identity, about what really makes you who you are. Each of the eight has their own story, and what makes them seem boring in the first few episodes is that for the most part they are not action-oriented or science fictional in the least. But each of them is like a short story in its own right, of the evolution of an individual’s identity and how being part of this completely empathetic group both changes and reinforces those identities. There are deeper themes that riff along those same lines too: the antagonist is both entirely evil and yet the ways in which he is deeply resonate with these themes of identity and empathy. Despite the first trappings of cliche, this is no mere “hunt the people who are different and therefore a threat”. Every aspect of the different interwoven stories serve these central themes.
That’s the key to getting the show, I think, to really enjoying it from the start. It’s the realization that this is not a science fiction story at all. This is a genre-breaking story that could be told in fantasy, sci-fi, urban horror, or just about anything else. That’s the mark of a transcendent story, and one I deeply hope that Netflix will give us more seasons of.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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