Sense8, Ep. 1.01 to 1.06: A moving, ambitious sci-fi series

Sense8, Season 1, Episodes 1 to 6
Created by The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski
Premiered June 5th, 2015 on Netflix

Telling eight stories at once is naturally going to require some narrative shortcuts, which is the conundrum faced by the Netflix sci-fi series Sense8. In telling the story of eight people (plus Jonas and Angel, whose roles in all of this isn’t totally clear yet), the showrunning Wachowski siblings (along with their creative partner, Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski) can’t afford to give each arc the time one would expect would be needed to make a drama compelling.

The problem is similar to what the Wachowskis faced in their Cloud Atlas adaptation; and, as they did in that film, their genre filmmaking skills allow them to rise to the challenge. The first half of Sense8 is strongest when it relies on the Wachowskis’ ability to make an action scene instantly exciting. In particular, Will chasing after suspects, Wolfgang’s criminal activities, Nomi’s escape from lobotomy, and Capheus’ fights with the Nairobi underworld are well-served by the Wachowskis’ willingness to risk being cloying through their use of hand-held shots, close-ups, and volume swells to make the scenes instantly gripping. These directorial decisions are the sort of thing that can make a viewer roll their eyes if they don’t work, but the Wachowskis have a knack for using them at the perfect moment, and they give the scenes an emotional hook which they might otherwise lack, due to how little time the stories behind them have to unfold. It’s difficult to know if a hospital would really go to the length Nomi’s does to operate on her, but the scenes are shot with such urgency that it’s hard to complain.

What underlies these filmmaking choices, and the series in general, is a strong feeling of sincerity. The Wachowskis and Straczynski don’t leave any doubt as to how they feel about their characters and the universe. Even without knowing Lana Wachowski’s personal history, one gets an undeniable sense of empathy between the creators and Nomi’s struggle. The same is true for all of the Sensates: it’s clear in the show that they are good, and their antagonists are bad.

Although this black and white view of morality may seem a bit childish, it feels genuinely refreshing in the morally gray landscape that has become the default setting for cable TV. While Colin Farrell is busy beating up civilians on True Detective and Game of Thrones is depicting rape after rape, it’s a relief to turn on a show that isn’t afraid to unabashedly ask its viewers to identify with its main characters. Even better, the Wachowskis are adept enough with the previously discussed tools that it feels easy to care about the struggles of their protagonists.

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Still, as good as Sense8 is when its scenarios necessitate action sequences, the show doesn’t work quite as well when it’s depicting more mundane conflicts. Kala’s situation is noteworthy for flipping the usual “girl is being pressured into a marriage she doesn’t want” plot by making it ostensibly a marriage of choice, particularly because her parents were forced into arranged marriages, but it still relies too heavily on stereotypes to have much impact. Likewise, whenever Sun isn’t kickboxing, her story feels too distanced to have much of an emotional pull.

Despite these weaknesses, Sense8 has more than enough compelling moments to make its first half an engaging watch. The aforementioned action sequences (along with Lito’s Matrix-esque gunplay shoot in “Art is Like Religion”) would be treats on their own, but they’re bolstered further by the skillful ways in which the Wachowskis and Straczynski intersect them. They yield to the occasional hokey moment, such as Wolfgang’s burgeoning love affair with Kala, but the failures are outnumbered by scenes where the show’s ambitious concept works beautifully, like the inter-continental orgy at the end of “Demons,” or the group sing-along to 4 Non Blondes in “What’s Going On?”

There’s a high degree of difficulty underlying the execution of Sense8, and the Wachowskis and Straczynski are doing an impressive job thus far of pulling it off. Even without giving the audience a ton of information about the world’s rules or character exposition, the showrunners use their filmmaking chops to make viewers care about what’s happening onscreen. Sense8 may not be subtle, but it’s highly effective as a showcase for what the Wachowskis do best.

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