About a week ago, I finished watching the first season of Sense8, Netflix's new science fiction series. Comments below include mild spoilers, not so much for plot points as for individual scenes and situations that arise.
The series posits eight individuals, four men and four women in their late 20s, who begin to be able to share one another's senses, thoughts, and abilities -- sporadically and inexplicably at first, then more consistently and volitionally as they come to know each other. Will is a Chicago police officer; Nomi (nee Michael) is a San Francisco hacker; Lito is a Mexico City film star; Sun is a Seoul business executive and martial artist; Kala is a Mumbai pharmacy student about to be married; Wolfgang is the safecracker son of a Berlin criminal family; Capheus is a Nairobi bus driver/entrepreneur; Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London. As the series progresses, they become more and more deeply involved in one another's lives, and frequently aid each other in moments of crisis, culminating in a sequence in which all of them are working in concert for the same goal.
Here are my thoughts, in more-or-less random order:
1. The season as a whole kept my attention and got my heart racing, and increasingly I couldn't keep away. At one point, I was stealing a few minutes at a time in the only hallway where I could find wireless to find out what happened in the last episode.
2. The narrative style is disjointed and delicious, especially in the first half of the season where there is so much left unexplained. I also adore the many substitutions and juxtapositions where the sensates take one another's places, be it on the job, in fights, during lovemaking.
3. I think the opening credits are meant to convey both the rich, precious variety of the human race, on the one hand, and the accelerating pace at which we are hurtling to our own destruction, on the other.
4. I was initially annoyed by the portrayal of other languages by actors speaking English with foreign accents -- until I got to the scene where two characters who spoke two different languages (Hindi and German in one case, Korean and Swahili in another) spoke to each other in those actual tongues with English subtitles, and you finally get what they've been trying to do. Very clever.
5. This is a fantasy made for the age of social media. The premise is that people who have never met, separated by thousands of miles, can be dear friends, allies, even lovers, and come to one another's rescue in moments of crisis. It is perhaps the perfect metaphorical attempt to fill rift between our decreasing physical contact and increasing ethereal contact with one another. As wish fulfilment it works very well.
6. The show reminds me of two other series I remember from my remote past: The Champions from the late 1960s, in which three intelligence agents (a pilot, a doctor, a codebreaker) maximize their physical and intellectual capacities while learning to communicate with each other telepathically. Also Search from the early 1970s, in which three (other) intelligence agents are fitted with video cameras, microphones, and implanted receivers which allow them to receive instantaneous advice from their home base.
7. Sense8 has not yet decided which side of the intimacy/fusion border it is on. (For the uninitiated: some psychologists say that "emotional fusion," the wish to erase all boundaries and become one with another, is an infantile desire to deny our own separate personhood (i.e., to reunite with the mother). Intimacy, by contrast, is described as the deliberate and scary revelation of the secret self to another; it requires an acknowledgment of boundaries so that they can be lifted, and is one of the most difficult things adults do.) In this series, the characters on the one hand seem to experience emotional fusion, but there are other moments where it is clear that they do not all know one another's thoughts and must be actually told (hence, moments of actual intimacy). It feels like the writers want to approach something like fusion, but don't want to rob the characters of the choice and risk of deliberate intimacy. I am curious to see where this will all wind up.
8. The series runs a risk of becoming sentimental and maudlin very quickly. All television series run this risk if they go on long enough (just look at Season Seven of pretty much any series you loved, and watch the number of times characters (mirroring the feelings of the viewers) say "Oh, X, you mustn't do that because we love you and it will break my heart" or similar), but because this first season has been so heavily character oriented, the audience already knows these eight people well and has shared in their personal sorrows and fears. We are already, at the end of episode 12, prone to have a don't-hurt-my-babies feeling about them. I fear that future seasons may feature long, "deep" shots of one of the sensates' faces, as we emote right along with him/her for the entire episode.
9. It is a superhero series. The sensates' ability to adopt each other's abilities at will means that each of them, at any moment, is a financial wizard hacker cop gangster actor martial artist daredevil driver biochemist who speaks seven languages. Like all stories about superpowers, its problem is finding credible obstacles to make the drama believable. The few "enemy" sensates we have met (much like Magneto's mutants in the X-Men stories) may serve this function.
10. It runs the risk of becoming Mission: Impossible. Each of the characters may, if the writers aren't careful, fall in to a stock role where they're essentially doing the same thing over and over. One can see Lito as the Master of Disguise (Martin Landau / Leonard Nimoy), Sun as the "muscle" (Peter Lupus), Nomi as the technojock (Greg Morris), Riley as the "babe" (Barbara Bain / Linda Day George), etc. Of course we've seen this same tendency with many other "team mission" series such as Criminal Minds, The A-Team, Leverage, etc.). The sequence in which all eight of them work together very much had that flavor to it; I couldn't help loving it, but it worried me. It's not necessarily a bad trope, unless it begins to be used thoughtlessly.
11. I am fascinated with the gradually unfolding backstory revelation of each character. Particularly I'm interested in how pointedly the series has shown us the sensates' relationships with their parents, which in some cases are very strongly negative, even abusive (Nomi, Wolfgang), in others exceptionally loving and supportive (Riley, Capheus, Kala), and others who seem to have both at the same time (Sun, Will). Only Lito's parents are still unknown to us. Childhood trauma and/or loss is very strongly indicated as a prime motivator for Will, Wolfgang, Nomi, Riley, Sun, Capheus.
12. Even more interesting is the complimentary relationship of their personalities. In particular, Sun and Capheus, who have the greatest level of physical and moral courage, and Nomi, who firmly grasps her hard-won personal integrity, are materially helpful to Lito, who begins the series with neither courage nor integrity.
13. I like the assertion articulated by Jonas that the sort of enforced empathy that the sensates have for each other is a species-level survival trait. They are destined to save the world, he believes, because they are much less likely to kill than ordinary humans, because "It's easy to kill when you can't feel." In this sense, the sensates' connection is a metaphor for the urgent needs of our current human condition. BUT:
14. This assertion is not particularly borne out by the actions of the sensates thus far. Capheus (with Sun's and Will's help) and Wolfgang have, between them, killed about 30 people by the end of episode 12. It is presented as mostly, but not entirely, self-defense, but I wonder whether the sensates are going to be so lethal, with so little reflection, in the future. I have been shocked, actually, that the more sensitive souls among them (Lito, Riley, Kala) have let these deaths go by with so little comment or criticism. Kala even helps Wolfgang kill some people -- something she might do in an emergency no matter who she is, but where is her remorse? Wolfgang has none, but we don't expect him to. We are told that Will is emotionally unable to murder, but his solution is simply to invoke Wolfgang, whose ruthlessness proves useful.
15. The few times when all eight of them appear to be in synchrony with each other -- each involving a piece of music, I think -- are transcendent.
16. While their similar age is explained in the series, it's noteworthy and disappointing that they're nearly all middle class (at least) as well. Arguably Capheus is not, although owning his own bus potentially puts him in more control of his economic future than many.
17. There's a moment in one of the last few episodes where the visual impact of a scene is much higher if you happen to understand Icelandic patrinomial nomenclature.
Anyway, despite all the reservations and worries and analyses I express above, I am captivated and will undoubtedly be counting the days until Season Two is released.