I am not a binge watcher of television. I try not binge anything if it can be helped, be it food, alcohol, or entertainment. I am not worried about something being spoiled for me; rushing through a program to get to the next one and “know” everything is an increasingly common way to watch television, particularly on Netflix. Not interested. This discussion of Sense8 is focused on the first two episodes, which I watched at my leisure and thought about. There will be more to follow at least weekly.
Dispatch 1: Episodes 1 and 2
Netflix’s Sense8 is a visually stunning piece of genre gibberish conceived by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski. It features Daryl Hannah, Sayid from Lost for five minutes, an international cast that can be looked up on IMDB, and a Jean Claude Van Damme tribute bus. Simply putting this cast together on the bus would have been enough for at least three episodes. The creators instead go with a shadowy, evil entity stalking a group of seemingly random people who are beginning to share each other’s experiences. Layered upon this narrative, which is only gently explored in the first episode, are the eight stories of the people having the visions. It is here that Sense8 veers from good to bad and eventually just settles somewhere in the middle.
A few of these interwoven stories are not as strong; these segments drag on, stealing from the more interesting ones. The segment featuring an idealistic cop saving a young gang member in Chicago could have been pulled from any network procedural. The dialogue sounds like a liberal public service announcement funded by the Koch brothers. A London DJ story is similarly rote- a mishmash of club music and drug platitudes that ends in a predictable burst of violence. The same beats are hit with the jewel thieves working through daddy issues and the steps from ninety percent of all filmed heists. Given the pedigree of the creators, the elaborate schmaltz and broad clichés in these segments could be necessary world building, intentional genre commentary or just bad writing. Neither the Wachowskis nor Straczynski have unblemished records, so making a call is difficult.
These weak links are not Sense8’s only problem. Some of the more interesting threads introduced in the pilot are given short shrift in the second episode, which focuses more on the generic cop drama. The creators seem intent on selling show’s biggest liability. Also given special attention is a character in Mumbai who is unsure about her upcoming wedding. In the pilot, the overly earnest father daughter relationship is layered with the “unsure bride” plot into a tired pile of Pabulum. There is a course correction in the second episode, which comes complete with a dance number. As the groom and the specter of in-law dynamics are introduced, the story becomes more interesting. If the creators can pull off a similar trick with the other story lines, Sense8 moves from fleeting curiosity to pretty compelling, because for every worn beat the show hits, there are stories that seem just as fresh.
Leaving the JCVD bus and an Asian corporate tale to the side, as the creators do for most of the first and second episodes, the second most intriguing story arc belongs to a Mexican character who is not what he seems on any level. After an introduction that could be metacommentary on the cop story line that it’s running parallel to, the section continues to surprise and entertain in unexpected ways. Though this storyline has a significantly different tone than the rest of the story, it provides a great change of pace from the arch tone that the Wachowskis and Straczynski seem intent on establishing.
That leaves the story of transgender blogger Nomi, which is hard to write about objectively. It is easily the most fascinating part of Sense8. Nomi and her partner easily get the best moments in the early going. Watching the besotted couple in its intimate moments and in public displays of devotion and pride is genuinely affecting, and overcomes the plot service that needs to be present. This section is the closest any of the individual parts of Sense8 comes to being able to stand alone, but it is not on artistic strength alone. Perhaps I am in the minority, but I couldn’t help but make some connections to Lana Wachowski’s own experience as a transgender person. It is not fair to make Nomi a surrogate, but the temptation will always be there, especially given her prominence to the plot.
In total, the first two episodes of Sense8 are not the tightest pieces of entertainment ever to be released. There is some major league hokum occurring here, but it’s not like The Matrix or Babylon 5 actually holds up to intense scrutiny; they are fun first and foremost. Two hours in, I’m not ruling out that Sense8 can be just as engaging; it just needs to follow through on the concept. Whether the Wachowskis and Straczynski can deliver remains to be seen.