First Impressions of Netflix’s Sense8


(This is a review of the first three episodes of Sense8)

When it comes to original series Netflix has a fairly strong win-loss record. For every show that didn’t quite hit (I’m looking at you, Richie Rich) there are at least three or four House of Cards and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts.

So, after the (hardly surprising) success of Daredevil the streaming service’s latest loss leader is Sense8, a sci-fi original bought to you by the Wachowskis. For those who obsessed with film to an unhealthy degree, the Wachowskis are the writer-director siblings responsible for the Matrix trilogy. Just from the trailer though, Sense8 looks far more in line with the pair’s more recent, more experimental, work.

So what’s the story? Eight people from different places around the world are somehow psychically linked, gaining access to each other’s knowledge and skills. How this all comes about isn’t clear right off the bat, but all eight protagonists are mysteriously connected through the death of a mysterious woman in a white dress.

Each of our eight protagonists are given a back-story, and a small supporting cast, and this set-up takes up most of the first episode. This is not a show in a rush to get anywhere. Some of the eight are given more time to flesh out their story than others, but it’s likely we’ll be seeing more of the less shown characters in later episodes.

Aside from their psychic connection, our eight protagonists don’t seem to have a great deal in common. From an Icelandic DJ living in London to a trans woman blogger in San Francisco, each character has a unique background, subculture or community of which they’re a part. But this seems to be the point. One of the show’s writers has said the aim is to explore areas of politics, sexuality and identity often overlooked by science fiction.

The end result is unique, and I’m still not sure how much I like it. Make no mistake, this is not the sort of show you can half watch on your laptop while you’re preparing dinner. In the first episode characters drift in and out of the story surrounding our eight protagonists with little regard for casual viewers. If you’re not paying full attention there’s a good chance you won’t know what’s going on half the time. The Wachowskis are not here to hold your hand.

The show’s writing veers into the conceptual a little too often, but the cast do a generally decent job with what they’re given. The trouble is, for the three episodes I’ve viewed, so many characters and plots are clogging up the screen no one is given time to stand out.

Take Riley for instance, the aforementioned Icelandic DJ. By episode three we know she’s somehow mixed up with criminals and has witnessed a murder. But her story and her character have no apparent direction. There are hints that she may have a troubled past, but we’ve learnt so little about her we’re running out of reasons to keep caring. She’s a DJ. From Iceland. She misses her dad.

This gets so bad that the writers, apparently lost for what to do with her, have her meander through London until she bumps into another of her friends. Does this present us with new plot possibilities? Not really. We get one scene in a cafe and one in an apartment, which as far as I could tell retreaded over the few things we already knew about Riley.

The Wachowskis have a greatly under-appreciated body of work, which is why I’m not inclined to be too harsh (Cloud Atlas is a straight up masterpiece, and ain’t nobody telling me otherwise). For my money the pair are far greater storytellers than I’m ever likely to be, but here I think they may have overstretched themselves.

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With Sense8, the Wachowskis are trying tell a bigger sci-fi story alongside eight separate dramas. These separate dramas look likely to take us to some compelling places, tackling some important social issues. But I use the word separate because, so far, each character’s personal struggle feels detached from the overall sci-fi thrust of the show.

Nomi is a trans woman, with a loving partner, and a mother who still refuses to accept her life choices. This is compelling, if for no other reason than the fact our media doesn’t explore trans lifestyles as often as it should. But because there are so many other things going on, this storyline doesn’t have time to breath. And this seems to be a problem across the board.

But that the show is watchable at all is rather impressive, given the number of different characters, stories, themes, locations and cultural specifics it tries to balance. At least Game of Thrones can cut to Jon Snow beating up giants when it’s spent too long trying to be deep or profound. Sense8 does give us a kickboxing match in its third episode to lighten the mood, but it’s not quite the same as watching a bunch of dragons do dragon stuff.

Oh, and before I forget, Sense8 seems to be following Game of Thrones‘ lead in the nudity department, so if you’re squeamish about that sort of thing or were planning on watching with young children, don’t. Not that your kids would care about the deep subtleties and themes to watch very long, unless your kid happened to be John Stewart Mill. They’re probably better off playing Mario, or Call of Duty, or whatever it is kids think is hip these days.

If I had to offer a recommendation here I would say watch at your own peril. While it does get more interesting after the first episode, I suspect you’ll know whether it’s for you before the end of said episode. Sense8 is ambitious, well shot (anyone who’s seen Cloud Atlas will know the Wachowskis can direct) and tries to fit far more on its plate than any show should even consider trying to pull off.

If you’re still interested after reading this review, I’d say go for it – I’ll certainly carry on watching until the end, if only out of sheer stubbornness.

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