Sense8 starts badly. It’s a show about eight people with a telepathic link that allows them to share each other’s skills, language, and pansexual orgies. Those eight people each live in a different country, but their link means they are frequently thrust together – sometimes literally, re: orgies – across time and space to share the same moments.
That sounds fun – and it gets fun – but common writing advice says you should start the story you’re telling as late as possible, so that there’s no unnecessary build-up. Sense8 begins its story an episode or three too early and seems reluctant to show who these characters are beyond their costumes. One character, Will, is a policeman, so there’s three scenes of him doing police things, in which the dialogue might as well have been replaced with “Policeman policeman policeman. Policeman? Policeman.” Meanwhile, “Business business business,” says business lady Sun Bak, in another three scenes set on the other side of the world.
When it finally gets going, the result is a romping, silly action adventure. There’s a joyful inevitability to it: you know early on, when Sun Bak is revealed to be a martial arts expert, that it is only a matter of time before impoverished, Van Damme-obsessed, Nairobian bus driver Capheus borrows that ability to beat up his problems. And sure enough.
This is all helped by the diverse characters. The show is broadly similar in tone and content to the first season of Heroes, but certain Heroes characters seemed always to be doomed to trudging personal plotlines while the major arcs prepared for their arrival. Not so here, where one of the character’s is Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican action movie star attempting to hide his homosexuality, and where the audience is wondering what’ll happen when those bright, camp storylines crash together with the grey tale of Berlin thief Wolfgang Bogdanow. Sense8 mixes genres and tones and settings in a freewheeling way that redeems plotting and dialogue that’s still, even in the better episodes, leaden.
Sense8 was created by three people: Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski and The Matrix’s Andy and Lana Wachowski.
It’s an interesting series in light of the latter two’s work. Sense8 holds a lot of superficial similarities with The Matrix: urban, seemingly ordinary people waking up to extraordinary abilities and discovering a hidden world of conspiracies and shadow organisations beneath the veil of the everyday.
But in many other ways they seem almost consciously opposite. Sense8’s implicit and explicit message is that we are all connected to one another. Or maybe more than that: in one scene in Episode 5, we see two characters who are unable to disconnect their link from one another. We are all connected whether we want to be or not.
Compare this to a similar scene in The Matrix: on a busy city street similar to that on which Sense8’s characters walk, Neo and Morpheus push their way through the bland crowds till Neo becomes distracted by a woman in a red dress. Upon glancing away and back again, the woman has transformed into Hugo Weaving, the film’s virus-like computer agent capable of possessing and in the process destroying any individual. The lesson: conformists who have not yet ‘woken up’ from The Matrix are tantamount to machines, and therefore subhuman, and so it’s OK when Neo and Trinity kill lots of innocent people a few scenes later.
The Matrix was one of my favourite films as a teenager. I was 14 years-old when it was released and I watched it over and over, enjoying it for the choreographed action and the satisfaction of Neo’s arc of empowerment. Watching it again as an adult, I struggle to enjoy it so freely. That self-realisation now sounds to me like self-absorption: everyone else is sleeping, only you and your friends are awake, so put on your leather coat and military boots and kill as many people as it takes to deify yourself.
Sense8 is the humanist response to The Matrix, then. Self-actualization is not found through “guns, lots of guns,” but through accepting, trusting, and depending upon other people.
Because of this, I find myself rooting for Sense8 – to the extent that I know I feel more positive about it now than when I was watching it earlier in the year, when the plotting and characters bothered me much more. The show still often displays a fourteen-year-old’s perspective on adulthood – it’s just better than the fourteen-year-old’s self-involved nihilism conveyed through The Matrix.
Perhaps Sense8’s philosophy is most cleanly expressed at its very start. Among a long title sequence in which the camera flits around the world, showing short clips people of all kinds revelling, we see a woman holding a sign. It reads, “KINDNESS IS SEXY.”