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I loved Sense8 a lot. I want more people to know what it is, and I want them to watch it. This article will talk about Sense8, especially why I think you should watch it, but also quite a bit about what this show is and why it might (especially in the early episodes) trip some people up. I’m going to write this almost point-form as a dialectic to make it easier to organize my thoughts on particular attendant subjects. Normally, I’d freewheel a review, but twelve hours is a daunting length of something to review all at once, so this will not really be a review of Sense8. More like cheerleading, maybe a little apologia, and so on. I’ll try to limit spoilers, but I expect the readers of this will fall into one of two camps:

Camp 1: watched all or part of the show, loved or hated it… looking to have opinions validated, shared, or challenged.

Camp 2: don’t know anything about this, or haven’t yet watched it… require some convincing.

If you were gonna watch Sense8 anyway, then don’t feel compelled to read this. That said, stick with the show past the first episode or two. Give it a chance to establish its particular pace and rhythm and give yourself a chance to adjust your expectations.

Anyway, let’s dig in. With lots of Tumblr GIFs for dessert!

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What is this thing?

Sense8 is ostensibly a science fiction show about eight people who can connect to each other’s minds over vast distances. They are called “Sensates” and are collectively referred to as a “cluster”. At first glance, it seems like a very Wachowski show, something like The Matrix, really. But actually, it has way more in common with Cloud Atlas. If you didn’t like that movie, it’s probably safe to say you won’t dig the themes or meaning of Sense8.

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Is it an action science fiction thriller type of show?

Yeah. But it had a somewhat misleading, not to mention absentee, marketing strategy. Netflix, apparently, didn’t know how to sell a show that is kind of eight shows all in one, and only some of the time is it a thriller or action or science fiction in tangible ways. Most episodes delve into that territory, but spend very little time on it. Much less than you’d expect from the trailers for the show. There are plenty of action scenes and the overarching plot of the show deals with a shadowy company that wants to kill or capture the Sensates for unknown reasons. But this is about as important as the fact that Lost takes place on an island, at least as far as the way the show tells its story, and where it places narrative emphasis.

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So it doesn’t have a plot?

Of course it does. It has eight individual character-driven subplots that are connected by the aforementioned overarching plot. These subplots all have different tones and genres, so for some of an episode you might feel like you’re watching a drama, or a mystery, or a romantic comedy. Each of the stories weaves tone and drama, and the more the characters interact with each other and help each other, the more these elements combine and remix in interesting ways. The overarching plot, however, moves very slowly compared to the individual storylines. This may bug people, but it’s quite a bit like Lost in the early seasons in the sense that the audience was okay with the character stories being front and center while the island story kind of plodded along. I’m not sure the writing and acting in Sense8 are quite as strong as Lost and its best episodes, but it’s not exactly amateur hour either.

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What about the English thing?

Some people have complained that everybody speaks English in the show. Early on, but not immediately, the shows tells you that we hear all the characters in English (simpler) but they are speaking their native languages. This is revealed because the Sensates also hear each other in whatever their native language is, and can even channel languages as if they had always known them. This is sort of the cool power that Sensates have, and one of the focuses of the show is how this ability creates connections that transcends boundaries, which the characters use as a source of power in many ways, including cool shit like fighting skills and languages.

Anyway, this is the kind of thing people should try and avoid getting hung up on in general. Like, as a life thing.

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Is this a superhero show then?

No. Not really. It does have some superficial similarities to the first season of Heroes in the sense that it’s about very different people with special abilities coming together because of forces bigger than any of them. That shouldn’t surprise anyone since Tim Kring’s people stole most of their material from J. Michael Straczynski’s comic Rising Stars (which Sense8 is kind of a better, way more mature version of). Believe it or not, the show is extremely grounded in spite of its conceit.

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Grounded?

Yeah. A lot of the show consists of conversations and fairly intimate moments. As the show develops, they connect and help each other more and more. Some of them are living pretty heightened lives: Wolfgang is a German safecracker who’s living a crime thriller movie, essentially. But generally, the show is way more about revealing who these people are and showing how they evolve and emerge because of being Sensates. This infuses the show with an amazing sense of optimism and even joy that permeates so much of it, which again is unexpected.

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Is that why people are calling it cheesy and heavy-handed?

Yup. We live in times where sincerity is undervalued and ambiguity is overvalued. There’s also that a lot of shows are skewing toward “darkness” as a way to raise stakes and generate drama. It works for Game of Thrones, which is the biggest show in the world, right? But Sense8 doesn’t go dark very often, and instead feels like it is celebrating the connection these characters share. This is great because it becomes about empathy: the empathy they share and the empathy we have for them as an audience. We want them to help each other, to heal and survive and share and love. The show has a marvellous way of being earnest with this stuff, but it’s really easy to be cynical about that.

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Joy, huh?

Yes! I don’t know how else to describe it. There are sequences in this show, especially in the first half, that are basically just the most joyful expressions of human connection on TV. Part of the reason the show accomplishes this is because it’s so fucking inclusive. The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have created a show that tries to represent an extremely broad and ambitious slice of human life, including many sexualities, genders, cultures, “races”, and beliefs. All of which are treated with an even hand, lacking any real judgement in favor of finding the common ground that unites people because of or in spite of these differences.

Let me put it this way: only two of the main characters are American, and half of them are non-white. There’s a spectrum of sexuality and gender, and there’s even several religious philosophies included.

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I heard it was pretty LGBTQ+ friendly, true?

Yeah. In some ways, this feels pretty personal to Lana Wachowski since one of the main characters is a male-to-female transsexual. Some are saying this type of stuff makes the show some kind of “Queer Propaganda” but if you think things like this, you can march straight the fuck off my blog because I don’t have time for you. There’s probably no other show on North American TV right now, that is not expressly marketed to LGBTQ+, which has stronger representation than Sense8 or is as sublimely uncompromising about it (possible exception: Orange is the New Black). It’s not a show that’s in your face with a specific agenda, instead the agenda is much more general if no less bold: these things that divide us, sex and gender and race and creed… just shouldn’t. And don’t have to! That’s the optimism of Sense8.

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There are some pretty “out there” scenes though, huh?

Oh yes. There are two pretty challenging sequences that come to mind, one early on and one toward the end. They first wasn’t challenging for me, because I’m not prudish about gender and sex. The second one did take some getting used to since, having seen a childbirth up close, I am kinda squeamish about that and the sequence in question throws eight of them at you in succession and pretty graphic detail. Still, who doesn’t like a little challenging TV? So don’t let this stuff stop you, it’s just more examples of Sense8 being a pretty brave and unique show.

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So how much time is spent on trying to figure out “what’s going on”?

Surprisingly little. The way the show handles it is to have Naveen Andrews’ character as a sort of intermittent Morpheus. He knows what’s going on, and what the Sensates are, and how to help them save themselves. But he’s not always around, and he only connects with a couple of the characters through whom we the audience get more details. In general, the characters aren’t stupid and they quickly realize something strange but wonderful is happening to them, and they all have slightly different reactions to it though “comfort” is a good word to describe it. We can’t “see” what being Sensates feels like to them, but it’s easy to tell from acting cues and the things they say that they feel an immediate connection to each other. It makes sense, after all, since they are kind of a group-mind. It may be frustrating for the audience, but completely justified by the way the show is telling its story.

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How do you mean?

The show is very confident. The people behind it must be pretty confident to make it this way. Specifically, the first season is mostly about how the Sensates first start to learn about each other and understand what their connection can do. They connect more, and to bigger degrees (more simultaneous connections, etc) as the show progresses. But their individual storylines are mostly about settling their own affairs with the occasional help of the Sensates. Only three of the characters actually directly encounter the shadowy organization that is hunting them, or anyone involved with that. It seems to me that Season 2 will have a stronger focus on a central plot, since most of the Sensates have overcome whatever direct adversity was happening in their lives, and they did this only with the understanding, help, –and yes, awesome combat skills– of the other Sensates.

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So if I don’t care about the characters and their personal drama…?

Then you’re pretty unlikely to enjoy this show. However, part of the reason I wrote all this down is because of expectations. If the expectations of the viewer are rigid or narrow, it’s easy for them to become frustrated and turned off by a story. If you go into Sense8 with loose expectations and/or an open mind, or are generally pretty flexible about that sort of thing anyway, then I doubt that you’ll have a problem with enjoying the characters and their lives.

Especially fucking Leto, who is just the best.

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Leto. Being the best.

I mean. I think a lot of whether or not you’ll enjoy this show could hinge on whether you can enjoy this clip from it, totally out of context. Well, not really… but it is the best and most feel-good sequence in the whole show.

 

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