Entertainment TV What on earth is going on in Netflix’s Sense8?

What on earth is going on in Netflix’s Sense8?

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I blame the Golden Age of Television for this feeling. The feeling that I’m going to have to buy a whiteboard for my home in order to keep track of what’s happening on Sense8.

For Sense8 is good enough to justify the acquisition, complex enough to need it … and slow enough to start that you’ll have time to rule up the various grids and make it all look good.

Do you remember that moment at the end of the first episode of Lost? When you were staring open-mouthed at the television, trying to formulate the words to ask anyone (or thing) in the room what was going on and only managing to say, “A … Polar Bear?!”

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Prepare to look back fondly on that moment as a time of serene comprehension and total understanding.

Since then, we have entered the age of binge television which has inspired creators to abandon the tradition of dumbing down complex stories in order to squeeze into easily-digestible pilot episodes. And that’s great.

Except when the brains trust involved is the Wachowskis – the siblings responsible for big-concept films like the Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending – and Babylon 5 creator J Michael Straczynski.

These are people who respond to the sort of 12-hour blank canvas provided by Netflix by writing down every idea they can think of on cards, throwing them all over the floor … then setting fire to the house.

Photo: Netflix
Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton play a Chicago cop and an Icelandic DJ, respectively. Photo: Netflix

The series starts at a gallop and there’s no time for stragglers. Daryl Hannah is Angelica, seemingly a strung-out junkie having an argument with her imaginary friends who won’t talk to each other, one of whom is actually a guy from Lost.

All of this takes place on a mattress on the floor of a collapsed church. Then she “gives birth” and it all gets really weird. Because that is the euphemism for awakening a mental link between eight individuals around the world who are now on the path to being a hive mind and all clearly set for a really bad week.

The eight in question possess a narratively rich array of talents: a cop; a thief; a hacker; a kickboxing champion; a driver; an actor … and a DJ, presumably to keep everyone in sync.

We learn all this because the rest of the episode is dedicated to introducing them and some hints as to the reaction when they link. These people may be about to give a literal meaning to the phrase “mad skills”.

Doona Bae (right) plays a South Korean kickboxer. Photo: Netflix
Doona Bae (right) plays a South Korean kickboxer. Photo: Netflix

After 15 minutes of Sense8, it feels like it’s trying far too hard to be confusing. After two-and-a-half episodes it feels like it is cumbersome, plodding and too focussed on prioritising its queer culture pride over narrative. It’s fine to see a dripping wet strap-on dildo hit the floor, but it would be nice if the story was given as much televisual attention.

Then the first ultra-cool, Wachowski-level action scene happens (remember these are the people who gave us bullet time) and it’s like it unlocks the necessary energy and tension for the rest of the series to explode.

From the last 10 minutes of the third episode, Sense8 is captivating. The combined threads of mystery, melodrama, fantasy, identity, sacrifice and big action start weaving together to deliver a genuinely unique and binge-worthy series.

Sense8 can jump from a full Bollywood number in one episode to a 4 Non Blondes global karaoke extravaganza in the next and it is amazing to experience.

Just as the eight in the title stumble at first to comprehend what is happening, the series wobbles and threatens to deliver inexplicable tedium disguised as drama. But you are well advised to persevere.

And also to go out and buy yourself a whiteboard, because the world just got a whole lot more crazy. Wachowski style.

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