There was a time not that long ago when Netflix could have had an actual identity instead of trying to become all of television by churning out exponentially more content than anyone else. It was a brief moment, between the initial excitement of the binge-viewing boom and the current glut of infinite trash when there were signs that Netflix, whatever else it was, could be the place to find the most innovative and exciting television anywhere in the world. Freed from the content limitations of traditional television, disinterested in dominating the direction of their original series, for a second there, Netflix was making television that was unlike anything else you’d ever seen. Some of it was thematically groundbreaking – Orange is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, Jessica Jones – and some of it was blowing up what we thought television could be as a medium – Lady Dynamite, The Get Down and, more than any other, Sense8.
But now it’s the future and the ones that were redefining the medium are all cancelled and Jessica Jones is gone to shit and Netflix’s brand is just excess for its own sake. When someone tells you about a new HBO show, HBO’s reputation tells you what the pull is: high production values, name actors, writer-driven shows with dark and complex themes. When you hear about a new Netflix show, there’s no sense of what it might be, because you’re already thinking about how you’re not going to watch it because you still haven’t watched the fifty other shows Netflix released in the past twenty minutes.
I mean, you haven’t even watched Sense8 yet, and Sense8 is one of the greatest television shows ever made.
Sense8 is about eight people who suddenly find themselves telepathically connected, able to “visit” each other, share skills and knowledge, and experience each other’s emotions. The core cast is diverse and international: there’s one straight, white American guy, Will Gorski, and literally the entire point of his character is prioritising everyone else over himself. The rest of the “cluster” consists of trans lesbian American hacktivist Nomi Marks, Kenyan bus driver Capheus Onyango, bisexual Icelandic DJ Riley Blue, bisexual German criminal Wolfgang Bogdanow, devout Hindu pharmacist Kala Dandekar, gay Mexican actor Lito Rodriguez and Korean businesswoman/kickboxer Sun Bak. Each character has their own large cast of friends and family, and they’re also gradually thrust into an ongoing conflict between their own kind – sensates or homo sensorium – and a giant evil organisation called the BPO who want to wipe sensates off the Earth.
So far, so sci-fi, except Sense8 was co-created by J. Michael Straczynski, the pioneering television writer who made heavily serialised sci-fi before it was cool with Babylon 5, and my personal heroes the Wachowski Sisters, whose whole deal is taking popular forms and using them as a springboard for mind-blowingly innovative art. Sense8 is, to put it mildly, unconventional television. If you’re of the opinion that anything that varies wildly in tone has “tone problems” as opposed to just multiple tones, you will hate Sense8. The series opens with an extremely dark, bleak suicide and then a few episodes later there’s a whole bit where Sun is on her period and Lito picks up her hormonal mood swings except he’s never had a period before, so while she just gets a little weepy doing tai chi, he loses his fucking mind and has an emotional breakdown in the middle of traffic. Sometimes Sense8 is a goddamn action movie with shootouts and showdowns, and sometimes it’s a murder mystery with sneaking and snooping. It’s a romantic comedy, it’s a horror, it’s a soap opera. It’s an epic tale about all of human experience, it’s a didactic political screed about bigotry and power, and it’s a tiny story about the minutiae of personal trauma. Structurally, it most reminds me of the work of David Lynch, especially Twin Peaks: The Return, where episodes aren’t shaped by narrative or even character, but bringing the audience along a specific emotional journey. Its visual style is crisp and naturalistic even as its editing – which should tip over into the frenetic energy of a Paul Greengrass or Michael Bay movie, but somehow never does – seamlessly stitches together shots of different actors as the same character to represent one lending their skills to the other.
The scope of the show’s production is astonishing and obviously the reason for its cancellation: even the loudest, most passionate international fanbase can’t justify the cost of a show that does location shooting in like seven countries if it’s not the biggest audience in the world, and it wasn’t. Like so much of the Wachowskis’ post-Matrix work, it had trouble finding an audience in its own time. It doesn’t help, of course, that the Wachowskis are women, and trans women at that, in a time when the gender of a television show’s creative leadership is still so definitive in earning the patience of critics and an assumption of “seriousness” as art. I like Fargo (created by Noah Hawley) a lot, but it was wild last year when the third season was obviously not as good as the previous seasons and people were ending every review with “hmmm let’s wait to see if there’s more to this than it seems” while the similarly strange and ambitious fifth season of Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan) was dismissed as messy and unfocused right off the bat. It blows my mind how many critics – especially those with discretion over what they cover – still watch This Is Us (created by Dan Fogelman) even as they admit it’s mostly meh apart from one character, while there’s an utter drought of people writing about Queen Sugar (created by Ava DuVernay) even though it’s patently the best family drama on TV right now. I think Twin Peaks: The Return is the greatest work of art ever made for TV, but in the back of my mind, there was always a voice saying “imagine how little goodwill most critics would give a show like this if it wasn’t made by a male auteur”, swiftly followed by a voice saying “I don’t need to imagine it, it already happened to Sense8”. Everyone loves Wally Brando even though it is (intentionally) the silliest shit in the whole world, and they should, but they should also love Sylvester McCoy as a little old Scottish man who dresses in fishing gear even though he never goes outside, I’m sorry, these are just the rules of feminism, and if you don’t obey them, you’re a fucking monster.
Sense8 will have its day, I’m sure, and it starts here with me convincing you to watch it. I know that it’s always off-putting to consider watching a cancelled show because you know it doesn’t have a satisfying ending. (Netflix did give Sense8 a feature-length finale after fan outcry, but it’s not really possible to do three seasons of storytelling in two-and-a-half hours, so.) But you should do it even knowing it ends abruptly because it’s such a rewarding show to watch, joyful and tearful, exciting and soothing all at once. It’s a show about friendship and community – there’s a large extent to which Sense8 is kind of just a story where a bunch of people become friends on the Internet, but the Internet is magic. It’s not a show with extremely high physical stakes for the most part, deliberately and wonderfully so, because it rejects one of the most common tropes of this kind of storytelling in favour of a more ambitious approach. Lots of stories where the characters discover a hidden world within their own – the Wizarding World in Harry Potter, for instance – completely eschew the “real” world and focus entirely on the hidden one. This is especially common in young adult fantasy, like Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, where the character’s new reality becomes their whole reality, except for when one of the villains inevitably kidnaps the hero’s family and threatens to kill them. It’s an approach to storytelling the Wachowskis have subverted before – The Matrix is about how the real world literally isn’t real and Jupiter Ascending is about rejecting fantasy in favour of the real – but Sense8 is their best take on it, because it takes these eight characters, reveals the existence of a hidden world operating just underneath their reality, and… lets them keep living their lives, for a really long time.
Not all of them, obviously, since someone needs to have something happen to them to set the big plot in motion – it’s Nomi and Will – but, for the most part, and especially in season one, everyone just goes on living their lives more or less as they were, but with a new support system of people who genuinely, literally understand how they feel. Sense8 has a good macro-plot and lots of good personal stories for each of the sensates, all with their own subplots, yet it never becomes bloated or unwieldy because it always takes the time to slow down and have the characters connect with each other across their different worlds and through their common understanding. For all the great action setpieces – and there are a lot – I always return to the conversations the characters share as they get to know each other. Lito, a closeted gay man, and Nomi, an out trans woman, sit in the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City while Lito talks about how the first time he made love to his partner was “like a religious experience” and Nomi talks about how her father forced her to go to a swim club where the boys trapped her in a shower and scalded her with boiling water. Sun and Riley bond over losing their mothers when they were young, Riley with a long tale of someone telling her she was hexed and consequently believing her mother’s death was her fault, Sun simply responding that no one told her she was hexed but she blamed herself all the same. Kala, a professional middle-class woman, visits Capheus in his rundown shack in the slums of Nairobi and asks about his giant television. “The first time I went into a house like this in Bombay they had no beds, but they had a television as big as this. I mean, how can a TV be more important than a bed?” “Ah, that’s simple. The bed keeps you in a slum. The flatscreen takes you out.”
I think the combination of formal innovation and groundbreaking subject matter – traits that dovetail together in a transnational psychic orgy in the first season that will take your breath away – is more than enough to recommend Sense8 but if I’m speaking honestly and from the heart, what really makes me love it is its radical vision of empathy, understanding and human connection. It’s a sister of Orange is the New Black in this respect, each using the same philosophical foundation to build very different things, although one had to halt construction thanks to goddamn capitalism. It’s a shame too – and I mean a truly shameful thing – because while some art is mind-expanding, and that’s obviously great and I love lots of stuff that makes me try to see the world differently, Sense8 is that rare and special thing: art that’s not just mind-expanding but heart-expanding, that doesn’t show you how to see things differently, but feel things differently. It’s about being curious about other people just because they’re people, coming together to share burdens and resisting injustice simply because it’s unjust. It’s about connecting through shared suffering, yes, but also through shared joy. It’s about faith and love and art, it’s about the transformative power of community, and yeah it’s about kickboxing and machetes and bazookas too, but that absolutely does not detract from its humanism at all.
I could go on, but I need to leave enough to the imagination that you’ll go watch it. You have to watch it. For Doona Bae and Miguel Angél Silvestre’s performances alone, you have to watch it. For the scene where everyone gets high on ecstasy at a concert and reexperiences their own births, you have to watch it. For the eight-person karaoke performance of “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes unbound by time and space, you have to watch it.
You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
You have to watch it.