The Joy of Sense8 is in The Not Knowing

By  · Published on June 10th, 2015

After Lost hit big, several new shows tried to ape its mysterious sci-fi style, but no show has reminded me of the pure, glorious sense of discovery inherent in Lost until J. Michael Straczynski and The Wachowski’s Sense8.

The series – whose name unfortunately makes it sound like an automatic coffee maker or beard trimmer – continues the sibling filmmaking team’s obsession with mind-blurring science fiction which exposes the big, big questions of life. It’s a soap opera with high concept storylines, post-genre elements and a group of diverse characters discovering, without guidance, that they’re connected to each other.

There’s Nomi (Jamie Clayton), the trans woman hacktivist navigating life in San Franciso; Capheus (Aml Ameen), a van driver in Nairobi trying to save his AIDS-stricken mother; Kala (Tina Desai), the Mumbai pharmacist on the verge of marrying a man she doesn’t love; Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a hot telenovela star in Mexico City; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a DJ in London who hangs with some low level druggies; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the made-man safe cracker working on a big score; Sun Bak (Doona Bae), the kickboxing daughter of a wealthy Seoul businessman; and Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago cop with one hell of a conscience.

If that seems like a lot of people and plots to keep up with, it is, but the show does a fantastic balancing act and takes advantage of nimble scenes and the variety of sequences at its disposal. Even if you find one storyline dull, you’re never more than a few minutes away from something exciting, or a sci-fi shift that merges the slower plot with one that’s more intense. Most shows with big casts (from Lost to Modern Family) benefit from keeping their characters within walking distance, and Sense8 pulls that off with characters who live on the other side of the planet from each other because they are literally connected by their thoughts, abilities and emotions.

That being said, the first few episodes should come with downloadable migraine medication. It’s not asking you to shut off your brain to go with the flow, but it’s definitely asking you to stick with it with the assurance that the weirdness is going to balloon into something glorious.

Sense8 is beautifully, wondrously, thankfully happy to revel in the confusion it creates. It works both because of the imagination at work and because the characters are rowing the same boat we are. It isn’t until the third episode (of a 12-episode first season) that we even get the first hint of an explanation to what’s going on with them beyond the obviousness of the power/hindrance itself. It’s in no rush to give up its answers, but it’s a safe bet that they’re out there. Straczynski and The Wachowskis aren’t bluffing with nothing up their sleeves, and as the annoyance of hearing knocking at the door or voices when no one’s around wears off, and borrowing someone else’s skill set starts to come in handy, it’s clear that the show creators have some stellar ideas on how to utilize this Brechtian superpower. Finding out how the characters connect and merge is more interesting than why they do.

On that front, Sense8 feels like the culmination of what the Wachowskis have been exploring since The Matrix. Naveen Andrews (another Lost connection) plays a Morpheus-like father figure who is wanted by federal authorities, but still able to offer drips and drabs of information to the nascent sensates – a group able to hack reality even though they never got a chance to refuse the red pill. The experience-swapping, story-sharing nature echoes Cloud Atlas in both complexity and in its malleable identities.

The theme they’ve explored in everything they’ve made has been one of tossing off the chains of bondage, and that idea unsurprisingly gets its own pedestal here. It’s not as constantly direct as it was with Cloud Atlas or V for Vendetta, but it comes in far more flavors. No one in the show is a slave (or an unwitting battery), but all the main characters are burdened at the wrong end of the power chain, imprisoned by society’s condemnation of their natural desires. A woman who wants to run a big business in a patriarchal Korea. A trans woman demonized by a mother who keeps calling her Michael. A celebrity forced to maintain a facade of woman-conquering machismo. They’re all under the thumb of expectation, and they all have to make a choice about what living authentically means.

Postcard-worthy global travel, a sci-fi conceit made possible by an editing team that deserves an MVP award, and heart-warming metaphysics are the fireworks of Sense8, but the show’s night sky canvas is lit up by Empathy. It is the central concern of a series that takes walking in someone else’s shoes to the extreme. The 8-member group’s superpower is being able to tap into (and ultimately understand) another human’s life – someone who doesn’t look, dress, believe, think, pray, or fight like they do. Connecting to that allows them to do things they never thought possible. To speak a foreign language, to instantly know how to deliver a roundhouse kick (eh, Neo?), to cry alongside someone they’ve never met, to feel a rush of pleasure when someone 6,000 miles away is about to orgasm.

The exploration of this concept and the strongly positive ways that empathy has affected their intricate, worry-filled lives is a penicillin shot against apathy and cynicism. It’s also why the mysteries of the show can stay hidden as long as they like.

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