Raina Deerwater ‘16/ Emertainment Monthly Writing Staff
Netflix’s new science fiction show Sense8 comes from the minds of the Wachowskis: creators of classic films such as Bound and The Matrix, and also the things that existed Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. It follows eight people from across the globe that become intrinsically linked in a way that they don’t really know how and the audience doesn’t really know how, but it involves their senses. They are the sensates. Get it?
With unpredictable creators, a vague concept, and a terrible pun for a title, it did not seem like Sense8 had anywhere to go but flopping. Some critics believe that it did. However, the show succeeded by making itself into something different. Instead of focusing on how the sensates came to be or what is going to happen now, the show chooses to show intimate moments in the characters’ lives. The relationships of the sensates become the pure driving force of this series, as opposed to the plot or the “why” of it all.
The series starts with the sensates being “born” and discovering their connections to each other. Will (Brian J. Smith), a cop in Chicago; Sun (Doona Bae), a businesswoman/boxer in Seoul; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a DJ in London; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), an actor in Mexico City; Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a hacker in San Francisco; Capheus (Aml Ameen), a van driver in Nairobi; Kala (Kala Desai), a scientist in Mumbai; and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a thief in Berlin, all can suddenly feel what each other are feeling and “visit” each other. However, someone is pursuing them for these special abilities as they are just figuring out who they are.
This mysterious bad guy has nothing on the personal moments though. Capheus trying to get medicine for his mother is of equally high stakes as the central conflict, and so is the desire for Lito to stay with his boyfriend. Just as these characters begin to care about one another, we begin to care about them, almost separately from the central driving plot.
This is demonstrated best, appropriately, in the eighth episode of the show, “We Will All Be Judged by the Courage in Our Hearts.” It culminates what makes the show so divisive, and different from others of its genre.
At the climax of the previous episode there had been a large revelation about the central plot and main antagonist of the series. It ends on a note of drama and exposition. However, when the eighth episode starts, it is focused on a quiet moment between Nomi and her girlfriend. These intimate moments continue throughout the start of the episode, as Wolfgang sits beside a friend in the hospital, Capheus shares a beer with a friend and life goes on.
As the episode progresses, the moments expand into the stories of the main eight, and how they overlap and touch upon each other. It has reached the point in their development where they can talk and connect, though they are still uncertain of their origins. The audience is equally uncertain and we watch these eight people try to navigate this as well as their own personal struggles.
It is not until the thirty minute mark when the plot resumes where it left off, with the big game-changing discovery. Suddenly, we’re thrust back into action and danger, and many of the sensates have to work together to get out of that. When Nomi is in danger, Sun helps using her fighting skills, Will helps her with his police knowledge, and Capheus lends his driving skills, culminating in one of the best action sequences of the show.
While some can see this as inconsistent storytelling, it is merely a different kind of storytelling, one that puts the characters as an insanely high priority. The emotional payoff of the climax of “We Will All Be Judged by the Courage of our Hearts” would not nearly be as satisfying without the intimacy of the first two thirds of the episode.
This kind of storytelling makes Sense8 a show that could almost exclusively work for a streaming service. Waiting a week between each episode doesn’t suit the uneven pacing of the way this story is told. With so many principal characters, it’s nearly impossible to have them all equally featured each week. Sense8 is the first strong genre streaming show, and its strengths come from how it differs from other genre storytelling.
Good science fiction television focuses primarily on the characters. If you look at the two most regarded shows of the past decade, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost or even 2013’s Orphan Black, the heart of the shows come from the unique characters and their interrelation. Sense8 just takes this one step further, giving the majority of the time the stories of the characters, while still being ambiguous about its driving plot.
This is not to say that Sense8 is perfect television. The dialogue is clunky at times, half of the central plot is crammed into the season finale, and there were some very odd close-ups of births. However, perfection is not necessary of high-concept television, despite what some might say. The integrity of the characters and their relationships with each other more than make up for the more imperfect moments of the series.
Sense8 shows us compelling characters, combining slice of life with science fiction. Additionally, in terms of racial and LGBTQ diversity, it is doing better than anything else of its genre. Twelve episodes getting to know these characters is an enjoyable way to spend a week, or day, or however the kids watch Netflix these days. Despite the confusing premise, Sense8 gives us the pleasure of getting to know these eight people and caring about their journeys.