When you look at the filmography of the Wachowskis, it’s easy to see why Netflix would jump at the opportunity to work with them. Their vision in films (of varying quality) like Jupiter Ascending, Speed Racer, The Matrix, and Cloud Atlas is one of hyper-stylized visuals, intricate, weaving plots, and deep thematic focus. The Wachowskis have no shortage of ideas in terms of storytelling and thematic explorations, which can mean a two-hour film feels a little overstuffed. Spread out across 12 episodes though? That’s an easy gamble for Netflix to take.
It’s a gamble that doesn’t immediately pay off, but one that shows some promise. The first episode of Sense8 is overly long, and mostly consists of the show establishing set pieces and locations rather than character and plot. Perhaps that’s a symptom of Netflix’s binge-watching method, meaning that there’s no rush to hook an audience in the first episode because it’s assumed they’ll plow through four or five in a single sitting. That doesn’t make for great episodic television though, which means the premiere, if interesting, remains underwhelming.
The fact is, there’s a lot of establishing going on but not a whole lot of action. We meet a handful of characters, focusing on the eight sensates who can suddenly tap into each other’s experiences and locations after every one of them has an abstract vision of Angel (Darryl Hannah) killing herself. It’s Angel who kicks off the episode, and thus the events of the sensates, though her role in the larger narrative remains unclear. She’s clearly a sensate battling against others, one of whom is presumably a “good” sensate (played by Lost‘s Naveen Andrews) and a “bad” sensate, played by Terrence Mann.
It looks as if Angel gives “birth” to the new sensates, allowing them to experience one another’s emotions and to tap into each other’s lives. This connection is established by a solid use of sound and editing. For instance, when Capheus, a bus driver in Nairobi, begrudgingly accepts a chicken as bus fare, the chicken begins to struggle and flap its wings. The Wachowskis then cut to Seoul, where Sun Bak screams as she sees a chicken dart across her desk before her vision dissipates. It’s a bit of a hokey trick, but in the world Sense8 establishes in its first episode hokey is okay.
After all, the first episode of Sense8 plays out like a variety of genre shows stitched together. There’s the story of Wolfgang, an expert safecracker with daddy issues who, by episode’s end, manages to open the world’s most “uncrackable” safe and steal a bunch of diamonds. There’s Lito, a Spanish actor who, after the sensate experience courtesy of Angel, has trouble focusing on his lines and turns down the sexual advances of a co-star who’s dressed as a nun. These are story lines that wouldn’t feel out of place on Cinemax, where genre TV is thriving with shows like Banshee and Strike Back, or the CW, which has found great success with genre shows like The 100 and Arrow.
The success of Sense8 will depend on two things: creating compelling action, as many of these stories seem to be action-oriented in one way or another, and how well the show deepens the characterization of the sensates. Three storylines really stand out in the first episode, separate from the more genre-leaning ones of Lito and Wolfgang.
First, there’s Will, a cop in Chicago. His story line basically boils down to getting called to a building where shots have been fired and finding a wounded young black kid when he gets there. The kid pulls on Will, but Will doesn’t shoot. Instead, the kid puts his gun down and asks for help. Will is eager to help, but his partner isn’t. He tells Will that not only will an ambulance never come into this part of Chicago, but that this kid would let an officer die if he saw him bleeding out.
There’s some complexity to this story line that’s promising, dealing with issues of power and race in America, a topic that’s certainly relevant in a time when words like Ferguson and names like Tamir Rice call to mind racial tension and police brutality. It’s nice to see Sense8 building a world that, while somewhat supernatural, is still rooted in very real social, economic, and racial issues.
That same complexity and timeliness extends to the story of Nomi Marks, a transgendered political blogger. Outside of the storytelling, it’s wonderful to see that Jamie Clayton, a transgendered actress, plays Nomi Marks. Casting transgendered actors in the roles of transgendered characters is important, and Clayton’s casting is another step in the right direction in terms of representation on television. In terms of story, there’s not much to tell from the first episode, but her history of political activism with her girlfriend is sure to set off a firestorm sometime in the near future.
Finally, there’s Riley, a young DJ living in London. Looking a bit like Liv Moore from iZombie, Riley seems to be navigating stardom, including all the financial, criminal, and misogynistic stuff that comes with fame on the DJ circuit. Riley’s story is immediately interesting not just because she actually seems to cross over into Will’s, experiencing the same spot where Angel killed herself despite being a long flight away. Rather, Riley already feels like a complete character, one with a ton of issues both past and present that are potentially hurtling her toward disaster, personally and professionally.
The premiere of Sense8 isn’t so much strange—that’s been the go-to word to describe the show in the press so far—as it is scattered. The first episode does little to establish the actual story, to hook viewers by giving us an overarching narrative to care about. Instead, the show is trusting that the audience, given pieces of each sensate’s story, will follow along and hope that secrets are revealed and the storytelling deepens with each new episode. This isn’t a great episode of television, but it boasts interesting and thoughtful thematic work in terms of gender and identity, a particular area of strength for the Wachowskis, and a knotty plot with enough intriguing elements to leave the viewer wanting more.