No one could ever accuse Sense8 of lacking ambition. J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), who created the show with Andy and Lana Wachowski (Cloud Atlas, the Matrix trilogy), has described it as “a global story told on a planetary scale about human transcendence and what it ultimately means to be human in a contemporary society.” So, y’know, just your average drama about the meaning of life. The story begins with the suicide of a “sensate” (Daryl Hannah) who can access other people’s minds. Her death creates a new group of sensates around the world: a Chicago cop (Brian J. Smith), an Icelandic DJ living in London (Tuppence Middleton), a Nairobi bus driver (Aml Ameen), a Korean businesswoman (Doona Bae), a closeted Mexican soap star (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a Mumbai pharmacist (Tina Desai), a Berlin safecracker (Max Riemelt), and a San Francisco transgender blogger (Jamie Clayton). Suddenly they’re all psychically linked, so when the DJ performs a set, the cop can hear the music, and when the pharmacist attends a banquet, the safecracker craves Indian food. There’s also a sensate-hunting villain (Terrence Mann) and an oracle (Naveen Andrews) who drops cryptic clues to protect the sensates—or maybe to help confused viewers. After watching the three episodes that Netflix made available for press, I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on.
Sense8 is the very essence of Too Much. At times that’s a good thing—say, when the businesswoman suddenly high-kicks her way through an epic martial-arts battle, or the pharmacist spins through a flashy, Bollywood-style dance number. The Wachowskis are visual dazzlers, and they thrive on setting challenges for themselves, just to see what they can pull off. As the point of view shifts among the story lines, the show becomes a heist thriller, a rom-com, and a social-realist drama all in one. But when it comes to actual storytelling, Sense8 is often more fun to think about than it is to watch. Because the plot is divided among eight characters, it’s hard to get too invested in anyone’s backstory. By the end of the third episode, the only characters who felt like fully developed human beings rather than Jungian archetypes were the Mexican actor and the transgender blogger.
That’s strange, considering Sense8’s underlying message is about empathy. Whoever you are and wherever you come from, it suggests, we all have the ability to connect with each other’s feelings. We see the cop bonding with a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, and we hear many different sensates wrestling with similar daddy issues. Like Cloud Atlas, Sense8 wants us to believe that, deep down, we’re all the same soul in different fleshy shells. And I’d love to believe that’s true, but that idea works better in theory than practice. This is a show that has the most lofty objective of all—getting people around the world to care about one another—and yet it struggles with the much simpler goal of making viewers care about the characters. It’s ambitious and passionate and very deeply flawed. So maybe it captures what it means to be human after all. B–