The Netflix drama Sense8 has all the flaws typical of what one might dub “auteur TV.” Think of shows like Legion, American Gods, Bloodline, and Mr. Robot, where character arcs are thinly stretched over an entire season to encourage binge-watching. Or where any plot movement occurs right at the end of an episode, and impressive cinematography and directorial style matter more than a cohesive story. Sense8 debuted in 2015 with a 12-episode season (each episode running about an hour) that had just about enough narrative to fit into a two-hour movie. Created by the Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy) and Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski, it’s a visually stunning work with a truly languorous approach to storytelling.
So why is Sense8 so charming while so many of its peak-TV brethren feel like slogs? Probably because its serialized plot has almost nothing to do with what makes the series such a pleasure to watch. Sense8 fits in with much of the Wachowskis’ work (which also includes films like Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, and Speed Racer): It’s a celebration of human connectedness, a hippy-dippy ballad of love and understanding that grinds its teeth at repressive or orderly governments and corporations. This nakedly political show somehow manages to be free-spirited, rather than dull or polemical; its good intentions often border on goofy naiveté in a way that’s charming rather than grating.
Sense8: The Premise Is Not Enough
The Wachowskis like to tell stories about characters who are robbed of their humanity and agency, from the sleeping battery-folk of The Matrix to the crop-like harvesting of people in Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending (even Speed Racer is about overthrowing the yoke of corporate branding to succeed as an individual). Sense8 is a logical extension of those themes from both a business and story perspective. The show has the usual Netflix blank check, and is seemingly unencumbered by network interference and given free rein to film all over the world (the budget for this series must have been staggering). In short, Sense8 is about eight people scattered around the globe who discover they are mentally linked and are being hunted by a government organization that wants to turn them into zombie super-soldiers.
The first season of Sense8 was certainly slow going at times. In setting up its eight characters, the show took a long time to have them realize that their mental connection was more than mere daydreams, and even longer to have the ensemble link up and begin to use their hive mind to their advantage. In Sense8, every member of the linked “cluster” can hop into the body of anyone else, or they can stand off to the side and give advice. It’s a bizarre, complicated metaphor that doesn’t always work. Still, it embodies the same argument for empathy that the Wachowskis offered in their adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—that though we’re all different and may come from vastly different cultures, there is no denying our shared humanity and its collective power. As a character in Cloud Atlas put it: “Life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” In Sense8, the ocean is smaller, but the analogy remains.
Season 2, released on Friday, has finally moved past all the necessary scene-setting (again, the Season 1 plot could have just been a long movie introducing the various protagonists). Now, the ensemble is a fully integrated team, whose members can jump from body to body as needed, while also combatting the mysterious group that wants to tap their powers for evil. The second season is a more merciful 10 episodes long, though there was a two-hour Christmas special released last December that bridges the narrative gap between seasons. Every episode is written by Straczynski and Lana Wachowski (her sister Lilly took this year off after coming out as transgender), and most are directed by Wachowski.
Among the problems the show contends with this season: the Mexican actor Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) dealing with the backlash of coming out as gay; the physicist Kala (Tina Desai) trying to connect to her husband while nursing feelings for her cluster-mate Wolfgang (Max Riemelt); and the kickboxer Sun (Doona Bae) attempting to break out of prison and clear false charges leveled at her by her brother. Season 1’s biggest characters, the Chicago cop Will (Brian J. Smith), the Icelandic DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton), and the trans hacktivist Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) take a bit of a backseat early on as the series devotes time to other arcs. The Nairobi bus driver Capheus has been recast (Toby Onwumere replaced Aml Ameen), an adjustment that takes some getting used to.
But the joy of the show, especially this year, is that no matter what story is being explored, the rest of the ensemble is always hanging in the background. Each scene is edited with remarkable fluidity—Wachowski obviously delights in cutting between two vastly different locations as she’s doing a typical shot reverse shot dialogue scene. This approach makes Sense8 so much fun to watch even when it’s just delivering exposition. The cast’s growing ease with one other gives this season a looser, friendlier vibe than the first (where characters would constantly act shocked any time one of their cluster-mates popped into their brain).
Sense8 is not remotely a show for everyone, and the Wachowskis would perhaps be best served returning to filmmaking, where there’s a little more narrative constraint and an even bigger-budget canvas to play with. But it’s also undeniable that right now, television is the medium that grants auteurs the most creativity. It can lead to indulgent storytelling, but in the case of a series like Sense8, real artistry, too. Like many viewers, I am less and less drawn to dark, auteurist TV that uses every hour-long episode to opine on the misery and tragedy of the world. And so spending time in the Sense8 universe, where collective cheer can overcome all obstacles, is easier and more appealing than ever.