Tuesday, 23 June 2015


Sense8 is a tricky beast to review. I've been trying to get my head round it for a week or so now. It's certainly an extremely impressive series, in its writing, acting, direction and editing. It's an eye-opening, thought provoking and brave story, one that asks fascinating questions and plays with ideas that aren't commonly found in genre television. It's also an immensely frustrating series, at points almost descending into self-parody as it hops between characters in increasingly ludicrous situations, and refusing to clearly explain its premise.

This last observation isn't a criticism. The lack of a clear-cut explanation for the central characters' mysterious link adds to its power and mystique. It's an unique set-up: eight individuals, from different backgrounds, separated by thousands of miles and by differing cultures and upbringing, somehow linked, experiencing each others' experiences, memories, feelings and abilities. Eight young, very attractive individuals, because at the end of the day, this is still pop genre TV and plain people aren't allowed to be stars.

The series' genre trappings are quite subtle, only gradually being fed into the narrative. The focus is, at least after the gripping prologue, firmly on the introduction of the characters. We learn about them through their interactions with each other, and those in their everyday lives, and very slowly, the facets cross over. By the twelfth episode, all eight sensates are inextricably involved with one another, moving in and out of each others' lives to help each other survive. The science fiction elements are drip fed, and although by the end, the sensates are using their various skills like a body-swapping superhero team. Not that any of them display any superhuman attributes, beyond the central psychic link, but some of them are so phenomenally prodigious in their field that they might as well be. There's a bit of an X-Men vibe here, particularly with Jonas (Lost's Naveen Andrews), a sensate from the previous generation, who begins with as a Professor X-like guru but whose trustworthiness and philosophy later make him much more of a Magneto figure, preaching his kind's superiority over ordinary humanity.

Despite these sprinklings, Sense8 is not a superhero show. It mixes genres with merry abandon, throwing in elements of police procedurals, gangster flicks, Mexican melodrama, martial arts movies and Bollywood. The blend of characters are chosen well, and reflect the Wachowski's preoccupation with identity, particularly racial, sexual and gender identification. It's a similar sensitivity to that which they displayed in their adaptation of Cloud Atlas, but while that can fairly be described as a noble failure, this is a qualified triumph. I should think that much of this is down to the influence of their new writing partner, J. Michael Straczynski, whose knack for balancing complex ongoing plots is well known. Nonetheless, this is a Wachowski production through and through. Most notably, I feel, in its inclusion of a transgender character. While trans characters are becoming more prevalent on television (at long last), they are still poorly represented, both in quantity and quality of characterisation.

Lana Wachowski is one of the most notable transwomen in popular media today, and I would imagine that her experiences have greatly informed the characterisation of Nomi Marks, a lesbian transwoman played by real life trans actress Jamie Clayton. Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman, well known to genre fans as Martha Jones in Doctor Who and Torchwood) are stand-out characters in this series. Straight people don't often realise the complexity and politicking of life in the LGBTQ community, and trans folk are often marginalised in what should be the most accepting of communities. It helps, of course, that Clayton is one of the most beautiful transwomen performing today, but that accepted, her performance here is absorbing and sympathetic, with Nomi and Neets becoming a joyously real, often OTT and very likeable couple. Fan fiction and art featuring them is already proliferating online.

Sexuality and self-acceptance is at the centre of another sensate's character arc. Lito Rodriguez (Spanish actor Miguel Angel Silvestre) is a successful Mexican actor, whose career relies on his good looks and appeal to female audiences. It would be catastrophic for his career if the media learned of his relationship with Hernando (the adorable Alfonso Herrera). Lito's journey is one of self-discovery and self-acceptance, and his relationship becomes more complex (incorporating his former beard Daniela [Erendira Ibarra] into a panromatic trio) and stronger as he faces up to what is truly important to him. Of the three romantic relationships that exist prior to the sensates' contact, it is notable that it is the non-traditional, homosexual relationships that are the strongest.

It's Kala Dendakar (Bollywood actress Tina Desai), whose relationship is rocked by her connection to the others, although, to be fair, it was on shaky ground to begin with. A devout Hindu but also a talented and well-educated chemist, her life is defined by a complex relationship between tradition and progress. She is torn between marrying the rich and desirable Rajan (Purab Kohli), and holding out for love, the tragedy being that everyone around her believes she is marrying for love. Kala becomes especially closely linked to Wolfgang Bogdanow, a Berlin safe-cracker played by Max Riemelt. The two of them begin an unlikely transcontinental romance, which works well purely because their pairing is so unexpected. Both actors sell their infatuation, in spite of their polar opposite personalities, and although their relationship is doomed from the start, it's heartwarming. Wolfgang is a wholly sympathetic but utterly nasty piece of work, but only because of his horrifically tough childhood.

Somewhat left out of the group dynamics are Sun Bak (the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas collaborator Bae Doona), and Capheus (British actor Aml Ameen), although they both have gripping stories of their own and provide vital assistance to the group. Sun is a Korean businesswoman, caught in the machinations of her father and brother, but whose extraordinary prowess with martial arts makes her the most remarkably useful of the group, even as her own life enters a terrifying downward spiral. Capheus, contrastingly, is the least privileged of all the sensates, living in the poverty-stricken outskirts of Nairobi. The grim reality of his life, struggling to support his mother, who is suffering from AIDS, contrasts with his infectious optimism and lust for life. His special ability is simply damned fine driving, but he adores Jean-Claude van Damme, a charmingly retro obsession. He drives his little bus, Van Damn(!), eking out a meagre living, and like Sun, he is drawn into a criminal life through no fault of his own. Both of their stories would make exciting series in themselves.

Most central to the narrative are Will and Riley, whose experiences push the story forward throughout. Will is an Chicago cop, played by Stargate Universe's Brian J. Smith, whose investigation of the opening scene's murder involves him at the very core of the narrative. He's very much the “ordinary guy” one of the eight, the straight, white American guy who represents the inevitable bulk of the audience. His investigatory skills, paired with Nomi's hacktivist past, make him a driving force in the plot. Riley Blue, played by the truly beautiful Tuppence Middleton, is an Icelandic DJ living in London, living on the opposite side of the law to Will due to some poor choices, and haunted by a heartbreakingly tragic past. Really, it's astonishingly bleak, and the gradual revelation of what Riley has suffered makes up much of the final act. Riley and Will share their own romance, and become the most inextricably linked of all the sensates, although all eight of them influence each other throughout the series.

The story rolls along, mixing love, lust, fear and excitement. The plot is, to be fair, rather all over the place, but the individual elements and characters are captivating enough to make it thoroughly enjoyable. The action scenes, of which there are many, are exhilarating, and there are elements of genuine horror. The series isn't afraid of showing graphic violence and bloodshed, although it's the more understated moments that are most affecting. I found the scenes where Nomi is drugged, bound, incarcerated due to her supposed psychological illness, and the threat of impending surgery, genuinely difficult to watch (although this is a particular phobia of mine, to be fair). Still, this is adult material. What has attracted the most commentary is the sex, of which there is also plenty, from the outset. Male and female nudity is frequent, and there several sex scenes, culminating in an almost unbearably erotic scene in episode six that can only be described as a psychic orgy. However, the violence and sex both feel honest, never gratuitous, and in fairness, it's less than Game of Thrones has been getting away with for five seasons now.

The final episode, while it does well to bring together all the sensates in a single “mission,” focuses heavily on Riley and Will, to the detriment of the other characters, although Nomi's default position as team leader is a pleasant touch. Even after twelve episodes of slow burn, it's still clear that there is a vast amount about the series' concept that we do not know, which, combined with some inconsistency concerning the presentation of the eight's powers, is frustrating. A second season is clearly required, for although some of the characters' storylines have come to a head, others are ongoing, and the central conspiracy is very much unresolved. However, for all the occasional frustration at the story's opacity, it's refreshing to have a genre series that respects its audience's intelligence rather than simply spelling things out. A fascinating, if imperfect, exploration of humanity, I look forward to seeing how it develops in its next season.

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