Now would be a great time for a really ambitious, sprawling TV series with far-flung characters who are subtly intertwined, a show with obscure clues in its episodes visible only to superfans. A show that requires and rewards rewatching. One that speaks to our search for meaning, and our perverse aversion to embracing it once we’ve found it. How can people so far away be so connected? And how can people so connected still seem so far away? That would be a good show. I’d watch that show. Netflix’s Sense8, from Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), is really trying to be that show. It comes up short.
Everything the Wachowskis make must of course be compared to The Matrix, so let’s start there: Sense8 is much worse than The Matrix, though maybe it’s on par with, oh, The Matrix Reloaded. Eight seeming strangers from various parts of the world each have a vision of a distressed woman in a nightgown and one sneaker (Daryl Hannah); following this vision, the people are plagued by headaches, and then somehow their worlds become connected, and suddenly the London DJ is face-to-face with the earnest Chicago cop, though neither is sure how it happened. The Seoul-based martial artist is suddenly kicking ass as the Nairobi bus driver. The Berlin safecracker craves the dinner spread from the Mumbai pharmacist’s wedding. Our eight stars are visited by Jonas (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), who doesn’t explain their condition so much as confuse everyone, audience included. “They’ll be hunted, born or unborn,” he warns nightgown lady. What does that mean? It means these people might have to save the world or something. Emphasis on the “or something.”
Netflix only made three of Sense8’s 12 episodes available for review, so it’s absolutely possible that the other three quarters of the series hangs together better and overall makes more sense. One would hope! Plus, that’s also how mysteries work; confusing at the beginning, less so at the end. That early batch, though, is often frustratingly impenetrable, and very taken by its own dreamy bullshit.
Luckily, there is a coolness factor to Sense8 that other shows would kill for. It’s cool in these intriguing, vague ways: How are these eight people connected? Why them? Is it their mutual yet distinctive profound sexiness? Whatever that connecting thread is, I’m interested (ish) in finding out more. But everything that’s not that mystery web is pretty crummy. The individual stories of our “sensates” are devoid of any real vibrance or magnetism, and the dialogue is almost insultingly awful. “You’ve had a lot of different lives!” gushes one sensate’s girlfriend. “This isn’t a movie!” insists a different sensate’s different girlfriend. The show laboriously overexplains its most obvious stories by having characters give completely unneeded monologues: Nomi (Jamie Clayton), our trans woman self-proclaimed “hacktivist,” makes a video in which she explains all about her crappy mom. Later, we meet said mom, and all her crappiness is as described. Kala (Tina Desai) goes to a shrine and prattles on and on about how excited her parents are that she’s getting married, but hmm, maybe she’s more into her career and she’s not actually that into this dud. Later, she and her dad playfully banter: “You sent me to university to get a degree, not find a husband!” she reminds him. Message received, Sense8. Now tell me what happened to Daryl Hannah’s other shoe.
Sense8 presents a strange cost/benefit sheet, and how much you like the show will vary very much based on how important certain aspects are. The more you care about dialogue, the less you will like it. Visually, though, the show is mesmerizing and immersive, particularly in moments of either complete chaos (underground kick-fighting match, raaaah!) or shocking stillness (a deserted, bright-white pedestrian walkway, shhh). The performances, particularly Tuppence Middleton as our pixie DJ and Freema Agyeman as Nomi’s girlfriend, are terrific, but they’re also squandered on stories that lack any real depth or texture. Exciting dreadlocks do an exciting character make. A truly good show has to be more than just eyeball-tickling.
Maybe Sense8 gets there. Maybe it’s an instance of the Wachowski imagination done right, and it simply requires patience beyond the first three episodes. Depending on how you feel about The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, V for Vendetta, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and other woo-woo universe shows like Lost or Heroes, the amount of patience and enthusiasm you have left for Sense8 will vary.