I’m always a little worried when one of my pop culture heroes puts out something new, particularly when their track record is mixed. I was late to J. Michael Straczynski’s (henceforth known as JMS so I don’t have to continuously have to check the spelling of his name) Babylon 5, discovering it during it’s somewhat mediocre fifth season, but thankfully I was quickly filled in by bootlegged VHS tapes in time to fully appreciate the final episodes. While I can find little fault with the series, including the weaker entries, and I absolutely adore his work on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, his other attempts at genre writing have been mixed. None of his Babylon 5 spin-offs have come close to capturing the magic of the series, Thor was one of the weaker films in the MCU, and while I’ve heard of Jeremiah, it never caught my interest. The Wachowski siblings have a similar place in my heart: I absolutely loved all three films in the Matrix series, regardless of their faults; V for Vendetta was incredible; Cloud Atlas was stunning, but just when I think it’s safe to get excited for something new from them, I think back to Speed Racer.
Combining these three creative powerhouses could end up one of two ways: a science fiction producing Voltron, or a twisted three-person creative Brundlefly. The trailer of Sense8 was ambiguous at best. The only clues we’re given are that eight people, scattered across the world, have some level of interconnected psychic power, abilities that allow them to interact with each other regardless of distance, and that they can draw upon the skills of their fellow psychics. It’s a concept that all three writers are experienced with; JMS has covered telepaths very well in B5, and the concept of learning abilities instantly was a very important plot device in the Matrix, but can these plot devices carry an entire series? Let’s find out…Mr. Wizard, I need everything you have on Sense8! Beware, possible spoilers ahead!
First, the Meh
1. “Eclectic Characters” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Interesting Characters.”
The cast of Sense8 is one of the most diverse you will see on the small screen. Unfortunately, for everyone who has breadth and depth, there’s another that seems like a total clich?. You have the American cop, the German safecracker, the Icelandic DJ, the Indian bride-to-be, the Kenyan bus driver, the Spanish action star, the American transgender woman/hacker, and the South Korean business executive. Each has their own backstory that is played out over the course of the series, complete with Lost-style flashbacks on occasion, and by the time the series is over, you’ll know just about everything about them.
The problem is that some of these characters aren’t even remotely interesting. Lito, the Spanish movie star, is the hottest action star in Mexico City, but he’ll go to great lengths to hide the fact he’s gay from the public, a concept that just feels dated in 2015. Our German bank robber Wolfgang is haunted by the uncrackable safe that ultimately got his similarly employed father killed. Kala is the first in her family to marry for love as opposed to arrangement…if only she loved her husband to be!
The stronger characters, on the other hand, are incredibly well crafted. Sun, the South Korean businesswoman, comes off as cold and timid at first in a male-dominated society, but as her story progresses, she becomes one of the strongest and most interesting characters. While Will, our Chicago police officer, seems wooden at first, he seems central to the story as a whole, and gets progressively better as well. Riley is naive and absolutely adorable but also develops over the course of the series. Capheus van Damnne, the Kenyan bus driver, has a story that’s touching and terrifying all at the same time, as his love and need to protect his mother leads him down a road many wouldn’t be willing to travel. Plus his vehicle of choice is as memorable as they come.
In a stunning surprise for me, the real standout is Nomi, the transgender blogger/hacktivist. Played by Hung alumni and actual transgender actress Jamie Clayton, she is easily the most compelling character on the series for many reasons which I will address specifically further on.
2. It’s a Hospital, Not a Prison
While much research went into aspects like hacking and such, the writing team seemed to completely forget medical laws. Early in the series, an injury puts Nomi in the hospital with a concussion and a pair of unwanted visitors in the form of her sister and incredibly judgmental mother.
It’s revealed that Nomi has something seriously wrong with her brain, something that could be explaining her visual and auditory hallucinations. She’s told that surgery is immediately necessary, and is then quickly told she has no choice in the matter, that her parents and surgeon have signed papers necessary to keep in the hospital regardless of her wishes. Her girlfriend Amanita (played by Doctor Who‘s Freema Agyeman with a terrible American accent) has been barred from the hospital as she is not “family”, and Nomi is essentially restrained to prevent any chance at escape before the seemingly nefarious Dr. Metzger performs a lube, oil and filter change on her noggin.
Thankfully, these are poor plot devices rather than reality. In the real world, a patient can only be held legally if they are deemed to be a threat to themselves or to others. In the case of a medical illness, a patient can check themselves out of the hospital, even if that illness is acutely terminal. As for being a danger to others, it typically takes an emergency court order to prevent the release of a patient trying to check themselves out of a hospital. While most psychiatric hospitals build a one day waiting period into their voluntary check-out period to enable doctors to pursue the emergency court order if necessary, a traditional hospital doesn’t typically have such safeguards. Since Nomi was suffering from a head injury and what seems to be a cancerous growth in her brain, I can’t imagine how a medical staff could see her becoming a threat to others, unless she were turning into Tetsuo.
As for limiting who can visit in the hospital, yes, while unconscious, they could limit who visited her. Once awake, she can determine who can visit and more importantly, who can’t. As soon as she expressed that she wanted her mother nowhere near her, the hospital staff should have escorted the mother out. Additionally, it’s very likely that if Nomi didn’t have any advanced directives, the hospital violated the HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) by informing her mother of her condition. Once Nomi finds some answers as to why the doctor wants to get all Ginsu up in her brain, she might want to consult with an attorney. At least if she gets paid for her HIPPA violations, she could afford her own writer to close her plot holes.
3. You Cannot Judge by Three Episodes Alone
As far as I can tell (since I’m not on the Netflix review list), critics were sent a whopping total of three episodes of Sense8 for review. There’s a serious problem with this methodology: the series is way to convoluted and complex to judge based on three episodes. While a ton of time has been spent developing the characters and their interpersonal relationships, even six episodes into the series not much has been done with the main plot. The nefarious-looking, obvious government bad guy introduced in the first episode doesn’t show up again for hours. Kill Bill‘s Darryl Hannah and Lost‘s Naveen Andrews are essentially cameo characters for the majority of the season.
Sense8 is a series that requires a significant investment of time and attention in order to fully appreciate it. Thankfully, Netflix has let the Between methodology go in favor of binge watching, because frankly, you would forget way too much if you had to wait a week between episodes. That doesn’t mean that every second of the series is valuable. Complete episodes, particularly in the middle of the series, feel almost useless aside from a few bits of character development, but if Babylon 5 taught us anything, it’s that JMS writes for the long haul. The payoff is here, but only if you’re willing to put in the hours.
4. They’re Conspiracies, but Damn This Is a Stretch
Spoiler alert: it’s a conspiracy. Shocking, I know. When the big exposition finally starts to take shape, it comes in the form of the most unlikely alliance between government offices and a particular private company. It’s one of the first times I completely lost the ability to suspend disbelief.
There’s a knock at Nomi’s current hiding spot, with the obvious bad guy from the first episode at the front door. He’s a doctor for a private company, who is personally executing a search warrant and placing Amanita’s mother into custody for her protection. Sure, he’s backed up by feds and San Fran police, but why in the hell is a doctor executing a search warrant?
Of course, it’s all a big setup for an exciting action sequence featuring not one but four Sensates. It’s a cool sequence, but I still keep thinking back and realizing that the flipping cars were the much more believable part of that sequence.
Now…the Good and Great
5. I Now Have A Bunch of New Places to Add to My Bucket List
One way that Sense8 stands out immediately is its amazing cinematography. The globe-spanning opening credits are gorgeous and eclectic enough to give Stanley Kubrick a hard-on. The choices they made with international locations just beg to be filmed, they capture the colors of San Francisco and Pride amazingly, and they even manage to take some of the more decrepit parts of Chicago and make them look like modern art pieces (that being said, the Chicago Cubs bear shown in the titles still freaks me the frak out).
The action sequences are pure Wachowski, though, without glitches in the Matrix. In fact, they even manage to poke fun of themselves during a scene where Lito is filming a wirework action scene in one of his shoot-em-up films, with the director stating he wants blood to flow and copious amounts of artwork to get destroyed. Action scenes can be a little hard to follow, with the constant switching of characters in the middle of the action (it’s hard to describe, but characters are essentially interchangeable at any time and in any situation), but after a while you learn what to watch for.
6. Long Distance Relationships
One of the aspects that I enjoyed the most was that anyone in the Sensate’s cluster could potentially pop up into any scene. It led to some of the more interesting character exposition, some beautiful conversations, and it was an interesting plot device that felt unique, never really getting old. It did have a few missteps however.
Occasionally, the mind hop abilities of the Sensates was used for comedy. While it works early on, it gets less and less effective quickly. Later, a much more controversial scene involving an intimate moment between Nomi and Amanita quickly spirals into something that has made me thankful I’m not a Sensate.
Another aspect of Sensate abilities is that they can all understand one another, regardless of their native tongue. The way this is expressed is by all of the characters speaking English except for rare occasion. While this certainly makes it easier for the viewer to understand, some of the accents of the foreign actors can be difficult to understand at times, leading me to watch certain scenes again with subtitles for accuracy. It doesn’t detract at all from the series, and actually lends to some authenticity, but it can just be occasionally difficult to understand.
The hardest aspect, particularly at the beginning of the series, is remembering who’s who. With a cast as large as this, it takes quite a few episodes to remember who is where, and what their story is. It’s similar in a way to Lost, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a confusing thing.
7. Music Makes the People Come Together
At first observation, the music of Sense8 seems to be unremarkable. The theme and most of the background music sounds like it would be at home in a Borne movie or the soundtrack to Torchwood. The music doesn’t suck, but at first glance seems to be common, cookie cutter soundtrack fare.
There are special moments that, at first, seem ridiculous, but eventually make sense and make for some truly unique television. More than one reviewer has poked fun of the musical number straight out of Bollywood, which sounds ridiculous until put in context. It takes place at an engagement party for Kala as a gift from her husband to be, Rajan. It’s no different than some of the elaborate dance numbers you see popping up on YouTube from weddings, engagements and the like, but for some reason it’s getting panned.
The best musical moment happens to be a bizarre but incredibly entertaining mental octet rendition of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” which just fits perfectly with the series up to this point. In the span of the song, it manages to be both sad and happy, scared and empowering depending on the singer at the time, and it’s a magical moment in the series, one which I had to rewatch two additional times. Sense8 may not win an Emmy for its music, but it does have those moments that will give eargasms.
I am the least likely person to know what members of the LGBT community go through on a regular basis. As a white, middle class male, I can safely say I’ve never been persecuted aside from your typical middle and high school bullying. I have no idea, at least from personal experience, what it’s like to live a life where my everyday existence is scrutinized. Watching the progression of Nomi throughout Sense8 has given me what seems to be a much clearer picture of what people in the LGBT community go through daily.
Many years ago I was doing business with someone whom I discovered on our first meeting was transgender. While she still answered to her male name, she mentioned in passing that she preferred to be referred to by her chosen female name. As embarrassing as it is for me to admit, I couldn’t personally understand her transition and the struggles that went along with it, and I continued to call her by her male name. Watching the interactions between Nomi and her mother in hospital showed me just how inconsiderate I was so many years ago.
Nomi is woken up by the nurse to the name Michael, a name that Nomi’s mother had been referring to her as since arriving to the hospital. While she insists that her name is Nomi, her mother refuses to call her that, insisting that she is really a he, and that his name is Michael. While the nurse seems to get it and starts referring to Nomi by her chosen name, her mother continues to ignores her wishes up until the point that she leaves. On the flip side, Nomi’s sister, from the get go, uses female pronouns regarding her sibling.
I can’t imagine living in a world where something as simple as my name would cause fights between my family and I. I can’t imagine having to live under the thumb of people who eternally judged me, and yet, the character of Nomi is written almost like a love letter to people who do. Her especially poignant speech in episode two is the strongest writing in the series, likely thanks to Lana Wachowski’s own personal experiences, and it moved me deeply, enough to say sorry I was such a dick, Rachel.
“For a long time I was afraid to be who I am because I was taught by my parents there’s something wrong with someone like me. Something offensive. Something you would avoid maybe even pity. Something that you would never love. My mom, she’s a fan of Saint Thomas of Aquinas. She calls pride a sin. Saint Thomas saw pride as the queen of the seven deadlies. She saw it as the ultimate gateway sin that would turn you quickly into a sinaholic. But hating isn’t a sin on that list. Neither is shame. I was afraid of this parade because I wanted so badly to be a part of it. So today I’m marching for that part of me that was much too afraid to march. And for all the people who can’t march. The people living lives like I did. Today, I march to remember that I’m not just a me. I’m also a we. We march with pride. So go fuck yourself, Aquinas.” – Nomi
Sense8 is an experiment, much like Babylon 5 in that it gets exponentially better as it goes on, and will likely be judged more favorably as a whole rather than the sum of its parts. There are weak episodes, there are weak characters, there are weak plot devices, but they still paint a compelling picture that will hopefully be allowed to play out past year one. JMS has stated that there is a five-season story arc already planned for Sense8, and I think like his work before, if given a chance, Sense8 will rise above its weaknesses. That being said, the program is a flawed creation, not for everyone, but one that could prove the naysayers wrong over time. If you have attention to spare, it’s certainly worth a half a day of your life, and even in its weakest moments, is far more compelling than Netflix’s other recent genre entry, Between.
A fan of video games and science fiction from the moment he discovered his father's Atari 2600 and Star Wars, Jason Helton has been contributing to The Robot's Voice since 2011. Prior, he wrote for the UK's Den of Geek and was the producer and host of Iron Otaku Radio on XM's UPOP 29 channel. A die-hard fan of Battlestar Galactica (both old and new), Doctor Who, and pinball, you can follow him on Twitter @Razgriz1138.