Sunday, June 14, 2015


[Scroll to bottom for tl;dr]

[This is a no-spoiler review]

[Update August 27, 2015: Netflix has renewed Sense8 for a second season. Yay!]

I might not have noticed Sense8, had it not been for all those consistently terrible reviews the Hollywood establishment keeps churning out over the show. Collectively, mainstream Hollywood and "the critics" seem to be quivering with outrage over Sense8 like a hound dog trying to pass a peach pit (hat tip to Hunter S. Thompson for the metaphor).

On the surface, there isn't much outrage at all. Rather, a studied confusion and feigned indifference over the series, proclaimed a failure: Complicated, confusing, long-winded, structureless, tedious, impossible to follow. So studied and feigned, in fact, were those reviews that it made me wonder: What were these people watching that bored them to death... yet felt compelled to rip to shreds in the mainstream industry press? What bothered them so? I mean, aside from the above-mentioned confusion and tedium, which isn't exactly uncommon in Hollywood fare.

So I looked up the series info and happily discovered the greatest news I'd seen in film and TV in many years. Sense8's co-creator and co-writer is J. Michael Straczynski! I'm aware The Wachovskis get equal credit for Sense8, not to mention the entire cast and crew, as well as Netflix for backing the project.

And yet - if it weren't for JMS's credits popping up, I probably would not have watched it. Nor would I have gotten a Netflix membership just to check it out. (Congrats, btw, to Netflix. After all these years of resistance, you finally got me. And all it took was getting JMS on board to make an original series. See how easy that was?)

JMS is the creator and writer of my favorite sci-fi and TV show of all time: Babylon 5 (1993-1998). Sorry Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and all the other greats, I love you dearly, but in my universe, Babylon 5 is the one show to rule them all.

So "J. Michael Straczynski" was all I needed to know about Sense8 before I ran off to watch Season 1 (12 episodes). I read nothing else about the show and went with whatever storyline JMS had helped bring to life. AFAIK, this is JMS's first show (co)creator credit since B5, so I was in entertainment heaven. I spaced out watching the episodes on purpose, to savor and digest them. I'm currently on my second viewing.

What can I tell you about Sense8 that doesn't either result in spoilers or a 10,000-word long read?

The cast is delightfully diverse. Among them are a trans woman in San Francisco, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton. Her character's name is Nomi. JMS revealed on twitter that it is a word play on "know me". Nomi is joined by an African man surviving in the urban jungle that is Nairobi, a Korean woman leading multiple lives in Seoul, a female Indian pharmacist in Mumbai and a gay Mexican actor in Mexico City. Add to that a patrol cop in Chicago's Southside, an Icelandic woman with a tragic past and a male German diamond thief in Berlin and you have the eight characters whose lives intertwine, being woven into a tapestry of multiple, connected, simultaneous story arcs that also tell a larger tale. Through it all, alternative lifestyles are showcased without being framed in any way as unusual, such as a domestic triad and a madly-in-love trans/lesbian couple. Character development includes families and friends and the daily challenges people face in different parts of the world.

These 8 strangers scattered across the globe discover they are part of a cluster of sensates, who can see, be, and experience each others' lives. They can also interact to affect consensus reality in ways that non-sensates are completely unaware of. In the larger story they are being hunted by people who know who they are, for experimentation, and for extinction. The survival of the 8 depends on them discovering and learning to use their interconnectedness to stay a step ahead of their would-be captors. In this they appear to be aided by another sensate, played by Naveen Andrews from Lost (nice touch).

All the intercultural settings were filmed-on-fricking-location. That is one of the best parts of Sense8. It was shot using local cultural backdrops, habits, cues and social conventions for authenticity. I can personally certify that's true for the San Francisco, Chicago and Berlin locations. 

Sense8 portrays an authentic, global setting and keeps intact our planet's breath-taking human diversity. I have never seen anything like it on TV, and I can't think of anything quite like it on the big screen either. You will see stuff in Sense8 that you have never seen before on a TV or movie screen.

The score is original and performed by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of Europe's best, along with its choir. If you remember the grand score from Babylon 5 by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, you'll have an idea of the treat your ears are in for.

If you cannot identify at least five of the locations on Earth that are part of the opening sequence the first time you see it, you need to get out more. By that I mean "out of your country and culture".

I have no clue why people have trouble with keeping the story arcs straight, or why they think the plot is confusing and structureless. The story arcs are in fact, structured and interconnected in a completely novel way for TV. Netflix really made something awesome happen here, and I do hope they make a Season 2. But even if not, Sense8's existing 12 episodes tell a story that stands on its own, with an ending that leaves the door open for additional seasons.

Fun fact: Netflix is saying that Sense8 was illegally downloaded 500,000 times. There are mainstream TV shows that can only WISH they had that many people so interested in seeing their show that they'd go to the trouble of torrent downloading it.

Sense8 is full of quotable lines, another thing it has in common with B5. For example:

"Without the past, there'd be nothing to think about, let alone anyone to think it."

"Who can say if we make the choice or if the choice is what makes us?"

Last, but not least, be prepared for the fact that at some point, this show will get under your skin, grab you by the throat and bring you face to face with your own life in ways that may not be easy to deal with. For me, it was this line: "In the 80s, Gay Pride parades were funeral marches!" 

I've lived in West Hollywood since the 80s and the first friends I made in LA were gay men and trans women, ca. 1985. Through these friendships, I began to appreciate LA, its dangers, its diversity and its creative underbelly, often invisible, shaping cultural change. I enjoyed that for about three months before the specter of HIV threw a pall over everything. The sex-is-death decade was in full swing, as was stigmatization of HIV as a gay disease. Over the following years, I lost all of my original friends to HIV. Every single one. To this day, I feel that ache, that sense of loss, of people forever erased, when I bike ride around West Hollywood, in neighborhoods where my friends used to live. I have always railed against the silence and stigma around HIV, not to mention the fact that Ronald Reagan didn't publicly acknowledge its existence until more Americans had died from HIV than in the Vietnam War.

And then...JMS's Sense8 storyline not only acknowledges the existence of these funeral marches, but includes a beautiful performance art piece that commemorates the horrific times that was life in gay communities across the country in the 80s. I cried my eyes out over that scene. I am grateful to JMS for having brought it to life.

J. Michael Straczynski did it again. He created an epic serial that is smashing the boundaries of what we've come to expect from serials - and he did it without showing a single rape scene in 12 episodes. (Go home, GoT, you're done.)