I went on vacation before I could finish this review of “Sense8,” the Netflix series created by Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy, “Cloud Atlas”) and J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”).
All 12 episodes of the mind-boggling story of eight strangers from around the world who inexplicably gain the ability to share each other’s thoughts, emotions and abilities premiere at 2:01 a.m. CT Friday morning. But I was struggling with how to explain the show’s expansive ideas of identity, gender, sexuality and common human needs.
Then the friends I’m staying with in Paris took me to dinner at a lovely restaurant where the owner pulled out his guitar and sang for his diners, which included just one other table at the time.
When he wasn’t performing, he curated a setlist on the stereo which included “Salut les Amoureux” (“Hello Lovers”), a French version of Steve Goodman’s classic “City of New Orleans.” The French version has completely different words than Goodman’s, so my friends and I were singing about riding “the train they call the City of New Orleans” from Chicago to New Orleans while the French in attendance sang about two lovers who decide they can’t be together. We all sang along to the same melody, but in two languages.
It was unexpected. It was fun. It was enlightening.
That moment, it dawned on me, sums up the big theme of “Sense8,” if in a rather simplified way. People from all walks of life and even different countries share basic human needs—from love to understanding to connection. And despite all of the technology allowing us to communicate, we often fail to let others really get to know us or to be open to common experiences.
It sounds a bit touchy-feely, I admit. So is “Sense8” at times. But I like the idea of a sci-fi tale offering something more than thrills. “Sense8” delivers action, mystery, humor and big philosophical ideas—even if its a little clumsy at times.
The story starts out with intrigue. Angel (Daryl Hannah) is holed up alone in an abandoned Chicago building. Clearly in pain, she begins talking to Jonas (Naveen Andrews) and another man whom we will later learn is called Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann). The men appear and disappear, and do not see each other because neither is actually in the building. But you can tell they are fighting over her and that Mr. Whispers means her harm.
As the men talk to her, Angel telepathically links to eight people around the world and each of them, as they go about their day, makes eye contact with her. By the time Mr. Whispers physically enters the building, Angel has “birthed” all eight of her “sensates” and charged Jonas with keeping them safe.
Hey, I said the show is mind-boggling. This is not one of those shows you can watch half-ass while doing something else. You will need to pay attention, but I feel it’s worth your time to do so.
Beautifully filmed on location in San Francisco, Chicago, London, Reykjavik, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Berlin and Mexico City, it brings together the eight leads in increasingly jaw-dropping ways.
After they have initial visions of their “mother,” the eight individuals begin experiencing flashes of each other’s lives in artfully filmed scenes that bleed one character’s reality into the other’s.
Chicago cop Will (Brian J. Smith) hears club music coming from an apartment next to his, but when he goes to confront his neighbors about the noise, the apartment is empty. Cut to a London club where Icelandic DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is playing the song he’s heard.
As safe-cracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) attends the funeral of his father in rainy Berlin, Indian scientist and bride-to-be Kala (Tina Desai) thinks she hears thunder despite the sunny day in Mumbai.
Korean business exec Sun (Doona Bae) is spooked by a chicken that Kenyan bus driver Capheus (Ami Ameen) receives as payment from a passenger.
Finally, closeted actor Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) gets so hot-and-bothered he has to take a break from filming in Mexico City, not coincidentally at the same time transgender “hacktivist” Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and her girlfriend make love in San Francisco.
That’s a lot of characters to juggle, so the first three episodes lay out the characters’ origin stories in elliptical narrative bursts that are filmed in various styles. Lito’s is a sex farce, for example, and Nomi’s is a gender-identity melodrama. A silly Bollywood dance number nearly derailed Kala’s story for me.
I can see some viewers getting impatient with the slowly unfolding style of “Sense8.” By the end of the third episode, we have no more of a clue about the central mystery of why Jonas must protect the new sensates from Mr. Whispers than we did in the first scene. Yet it’s in that third episode that one character uses the hand-to-hand fighting skills of another in an amazing fight scene.
I’m not willing to throw in the towel after three episodes. I’m impatient to see more.
But I’m not concerned about the occasional bad dialogue or the fact that all the characters speak English despite being from all over the world.
I’m more interested in one of the themes of ”Sense8.” People—including a trio of Americans and a Parisian restaurateur performing an impromptu sing-a-long—are all more alike than we think.