TV Review: Netflix’s Sense8 Season One (USA, 2015)

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With a premise encompassing the lives of eight individuals who find themselves connected by a strange psychic bond, Sense8 often feels like a bunch of different shows blended together. Depending on the character, the show can feel like a techno-thriller, mobster drama, romantic melodrama or sprawling science fiction mystery.

Even back when I wrote-up my first impressions of Sense8, it was already becoming clear that the show – while certainly featuring its share of generic corporate conspiracies – was trying to be something very different from anything else on Netflix’s roster.

Sense8 feels much more like a twelve-hour Wachowski film than it does any other science fiction show. The series’ unique direction separates it from the rest of the pack – weaving in and out of various plotlines with a confidence that’s easy to get caught up in. One moment a character will be standing in a hospital in San Francisco, the next they’ll find themselves in a Korean fight club. The show’s directors made sure this stylish technique stayed in play all the way to the season’s end and it’s all the more effective for it.

Despite this patchwork narrative, the show finds a startlingly strong rhythm between its various plotlines. Contrary to what I expected, Capheus’ (Aml Ameen) and Lito’s (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) plotlines actually ended up containing some of the series’ best sequences. It helps that each has enough going on that they most of them don’t need to feed into the series’ central narrative to feel important. However, I do hope that future seasons find a more active role for Kala (Tina Desai) to play. A few more scenes of Riley (Tuppence Middleton) actually being the talented DJ everyone says she is wouldn’t go amiss either.

Early on, I criticized Sense8 for being quite vague when it came to explaining the mechanics of the series’ pseudoscience elements – but to the series’ credit, it really improved on this front as it went on. The Sensates’ bond with one another became both better defined and utilized with each episode.

There was a similar pattern of improvement when it came to the show’s dialogue. There’s an effort to rely less on exposition-dumps and really flesh out all eight of the Sensates. The supporting cast excels here. Terrance Mann does a frightening job as the season’s main antagonist and Freema Agyeman is a delight as Nomi’s love-interest Amanita.

If there’s any weak link in the main cast, it’s actually Chicago cop Will (Brian J. Smith) – whose skillset often feels obsolete in the face of characters like Sun (Doona Bae), Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), and whose individual plotline often feels a little bland compared to the rest.

It isn’t until the last third of the season that Sense8 really throws its big plot and character developments at you – but when they do come, they’re remarkably impactful. Looking back, it’s very clear this is a show that works best when binge-watched. Episodes flow into each other quite nicely, you’re never waiting too long for a payoff moment and the show does a good job of shuffling together different combinations of characters in interesting ways – though it does lean on Sun’s martial arts skills as a narrative shortcut for characters escaping danger.

In spite of the show’s premise tying its eight leads into a single entity, Sense8 thrives on the diversity that distinguishes them. No character is depicted as more or less important than another, they are simply different – and their ability to come to terms with these differences is what enables them to overcome their own various personal trials. Putting all the transcendentalism to the side, it’s a grounded theme that gives the show lots of thematic room to explore.

In a recent episode of movie podcast Wham Bam Pow, comedian and podcaster Rhea Butcher called the Wachowski’s “first draft filmmakers” but not in a bad way. When it comes to Sense8, this title feels like a particularly good fit. The show packs a visual punch that’s as striking and ambitious as its plot is outlandish. Comic writer J. Michael Straczynski proves a great counterweight to this, imbuing the series with a sense of direction. Reportedly, he’s worked with the Wachowski’s to map out the series’ arc over five prospective seasons, and it shows. Episodes rarely feel padded and the show’s narrative has a powerful sense of momentum behind it.

Though the show’s final episode did overestimate my interest in a particular romantic pairing, Sense8 was a show that absolutely left me wanting more. It’s ambitious, diverse and pushes itself to explore ideas and topics that other science fiction shows overlook. It requires a few episodes to get going, but the payoff is worth it.

Season Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Sense8 is available to stream all 12 episodes of Season One on Netflix Australia