This past weekend I finished watching the first season of Sense8 on Netflix and thought I’d share a few thoughts about what I enjoyed about it. And I did enjoy it overall. It’s not perfect in my mind (hell, point me to the cultural product that is?) but I really enjoyed getting to know the eight central characters as individual people over the course of the series, and the secondary cast as well.
For those who are unfamiliar with the premise of the show, it’s a psychological thriller / science fiction drama that is a kissing cousin of Orphan Black. As with Orphan Black we have a physiologically unique (evolved?) subset of human beings (or other species?) who have unique abilities and a shadowy group of powerful scientists with a vested interest in eradicating them. Sense8 posits a world in which groups of eight individuals are telepathically connected around the globe, sharing one anothers’ senses and being able to project into one anothers’ mental and actual spaces. They are able to share emotions, skills, memories, and real-time sensory experience. Sense8 follows one particular group of these individuals as they awaken to their connection, learn about and from one another, and strategize to escape the clutches of the Evil Scientists(tm) who seek to neutralize their powers.
A lot has been said about the global scope of this series, with its human diversity of many kinds (racial, gender, sexual, socioeconomic background and so forth). And that’s definitely there, much more so than many other mainstream shows. I was wary that “HEY LOOK WE HAVE DIVERSITY” would be where the series stopped, and was relieved that this type of tokenism didn’t ultimately overwhelm the individuality of the characters. Instead, identity-based diversity becomes the rich earth from which subtle individual difference grows, individuality that is informed by the characters’ divergent life experiences. In some of the early episodes I felt like characters were being introduced with stereotyped shorthand, but they pushed through those narratives and came into their own complexity over time.
While on its face an action drama, in which the characters must successfully evade a powerful threat (as well as wrestle with some more personal demons, and localized aggressors), I would argue that Sense8 is in fact a romance. Relationship is at the heart of Sense8‘s power, and questions of connection and empathy, disconnection and loss permeate the season’s twelve episodes from beginning to end. Sure, our intrepid band of telepaths must battle opponents who seek to do them harm. But that story has been told a thousand and one times (probably more), a standard trope of the genre. It is in the relationship realm that Sense8‘s unique contribution comes into its own.
I really appreciated how the senseates’ connection to one another was not exclusive of other deep, deep emotional bonds. Wolfgang has a best friend whom he seeks to protect with his life; Will struggles to maintain a relationship with his father; Capheus feels keenly the absence of his sister (given up for adoption) and cares tenderly and fiercely for his HIV+ mother. The few scenes between multiply-traumatized Riley and her musician father are so heartbreakingly loving. And there are relationship struggles as well: Kala trying to decide whether to follow through with marriage to a man she is uncertain she loves, Sun sacrifices herself to protect the honor of her father and brother only to have second thoughts from jail.
Two senseates, San Franciscan hacker Nomi and Mexican telenovella star Lito, are in queer relationships with non-sensates, and those relationships are not treated as second-fiddle to the senseate connection. Nomi and Amanita are gloriously sensual and committed as a couple, their sexual desire for one another often fueling arousal among the other senseates without regard to orientation. Deeply-closeted Lito endangers his relationship with Hernando and Daniela, and ultimately must decide whether his love for them is stronger than his fear of being outed.
Interestingly, elder (and somewhat tedious) sensates appear to our intrepid band at various points throughout the season and almost always insist that self-sacrifice and disconnection (suicide, avoidance of others in the group) are the key to survival. Yet over and over again the Sense8 group chooses to reach out and support one another, and to refuse self-sacrifice if there is any chance at another way. The elders imply or outright insist that relationships make one vulnerable; Will and Riley, for example, are discouraged from pursuing a sexual relationship with one another because the older sensates feel it’s almost incestuous. Will and Riley (and the rest of their group) disagree, and it is ultimately Riley and Will’s fierce determination to remain in one anothers’ lives that routes the enemy at the end of season one. Working cooperatively (with one another and trusted humans) ends up strengthening rather than weakening their team.
The relationship-centric nature of this series, set within a rich tapestry of diverse cultural backgrounds and personal experiences that inform the characters’ morality and desires, was really good television and I feel like I’ll be mulling over the people it introduced me to for many a day to come.