Netflix has renewed Sense8 for a second season, and this is a great thing. S1 encompassed a comprehensive origin story with a satisfying climax and denouement, but as with all great stories peopled with interesting characters, it left me wanting to know What Happened Next.
For those who haven't watched the series, a very brief, hopefully spoiler-free recap; eight people, four men and four women, scattered around the world, experience an unusually intense vision of a woman's death. Intense enough to perhaps be a moment of psychosis, especially given what follows, more visions and waking dreams of a seemingly shared consciousness between all eight. Oh, and pursuit by a well resourced cabal of government and corporate villains intent on exterminating them all. Huzzah!
But why? Why would well resourced cabal of government and corporate villains be intent on exterminating them all? Well, they are sensates. An evolutionary throwback to a period when human beings were connected to each other with close psychic bonds. In the mythology of the series, Homo sapiens proved a more ruthlessly effective and efficient successor population because, lacking any sense of shared empathy with their fellow creatures, they were much better at killing them. And we can’t have the world being taken over buy a lot of feely, squishy nonlethal sensate types now, can we? So, lets kill ‘em all. It’s a bit like X-Men, without the lycra.
Sensates exist in clusters, which can number anywhere from 2 to 12 individuals. The eight characters we meet in series one are a diverse crew of mixed race, gender, even transgender, sexuality and skill set. In narrative terms, it's probably the skill sets which are most important. A cop, an actor, a criminal, a scientist, a hacker, a female banker turned cage fighter, and so on. They eventually have a full suite of Matrix style awesome to call on.
But a lot of the critical reception to Sense8, and a lot of the hand wringing over its apparent lack of popularity, focused on the diversity of the cast. It's not just white males and their quirky/sexy female offsiders. If you search up critiques of the series you'll read a lot of essays about identity politics and how the decisions of the producers – the Wachowski siblings and Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski – alienated the mass audience by focusing in on minority characters. The transgender woman. The gay South American actor. The African bus driver. The Indian bride.
I don't think so.
We getting into subjective territory now, but I didn't come to love this series because of or in spite of the diverse cast. I grew to love Sense8 because it’s fantastic story telling. The cast were great, and their stories do grow on you. But they take at least three or four episodes to connect. The producers have even been quoted as describing the first couple of eps as 'preludes'. For a series which races through its later story arcs with bursts of violent kinetic energy, not much happens in the first couple of hours of Sense8. Or rather, not much seems to happen. Understandably a lot of the cast sit around wondering, "What’s happening to me?"
Instead of getting straight to the car chases and violence we do a deep dive into the emotional lives of our eight psychics. The struggles of Capheus in Nigeria to secure drugs to help treat his mother's AIDS infection. The unexplained bereavement of Riley Blue, a DJ from Iceland living in London and apparently trying to forget some personal trauma. The tragicomic shenanigans of Lito Rodriguez a deeply closeted Mexican actor trying to maintain a secret relationship with his gay lover while living a public life as a macho action movie hero.
These are stories which can take a while to get into, but the payoff is that once character development gives way to narrative acceleration and that whole secret gov-corp anti-Sense8 conspiracy thing, we care more deeply about these individuals than would otherwise be the case.
I truly believe that Sense8’s problems stem not from difficult issues of identity, but simple pacing in those opening episodes.
Perhaps with Series 2, having dispensed with the origin story and the emotional architecture, the producers will carry the show forward at a much greater speed, but without sacrificing empathy and depth.
It’s worth a Netflix subscription just to binge this one.