Sense8 opens with a woman in white, Angel (Daryl Hannah), writhing painfully in what’s left of an abandoned church, the detritus of various narcotics near her grungy mattress. From first glance, Angel resembles a junkie, and very well may be, but she’s also revealed to have psychic links with a variety of soon-to-be-established characters, one of whom is looking to capture her. After a telepathic confab with Jonas (Naveen Andrews), a wanted terrorist, Angel holds a pistol to her head as her enemy charges the church with his minions. We see flashes of her visions of eight men and women from around the globe—London, Mexico City, Nairobi, Chicago, San Francisco, Seoul, Mumbai, and Berlin—whom Jonas describes as having been “born” from Angel (presumably metaphorically, as these people are adults with a variety of on-screen parents). Then Angel pulls the trigger, the gun exploding in her mouth. Cue credits.
With that simultaneously compelling and exhausting opening, showrunners J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis grant themselves genre carte blanche, running wild on a whirlwind bender of contrasting tropes, fetishes, and clichés that will be somewhat familiar to those who saw the latter’s adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Each location is the setting for a different sliver of narrative, which are tonally informed by the locales in fashions that often predictably tie into stereotypes of that region. The protagonist of the Seoul storyline is Sun (Bae Doona), a buttoned-down businesswoman who’s also a master of martial arts. In Chicago it’s Will (Brian J. Smith), a troubled cop who does things differently from his legendary old man (Joe Pantoliano). In London, there’s Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a gifted DJ with a drug problem and a troublesome propensity for choosing the wrong friends. In Mumbai, Kala (Tina Desai) finds herself in a Bollywood-film predicament, as she’s engaged to a perfect rich man who fails to truly arouse her passions. Most distinctive, and compelling, is the San Francisco-set thread featuring Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman who’s taken hostage by a hospital when her brain is shown to have an abnormality that outs her, no doubt, as a super-person capable of shaking off the shackles of all worldly oppressors.
Like the various plot tendrils of Cloud Atlas, these conceits appear to be stuffed together as a result of an anal-retentive predilection for organizing thematic parallels that aren’t nearly as profound as their contrivers appear to believe them to be. Straczynski and the Wachowskis are most fascinated by figurative bridges in which they use an image or motif to segue from one story to another. When a chicken clucks in Nairobi, Sun briefly sees one in her office in Seoul; as Will rifles through a secret file pertaining to a crime case, Sun discovers something vague and in all likelihood awful about her boss, who’s her father. Occasionally these bridges are elegant and even moving, such as when Riley inadvertently inserts herself into the mind of Will, who’s discovered the abandoned church that opens the series. Reaching her hand out toward him, we’re allowed to feel Riley’s confusion and loneliness, these emotions serving as an all-too-brief reprieve from the unceasingly busy gimmickry of Sense8, which suggests a night spent watching as the show’s creators channel-surf back and forth through eight mediocre genre films, clicking by each one so fast as to forestall a savoring of subtext or atmosphere.
As with every film directed by the Wachowskis after The Matrix, save for the underrated Speed Racer, Sense8 would be a masterpiece if ambition were interchangeable with realization. The siblings are clearly striving to inform popular art with democratic wildness. Several characters in the series are revealed to be gay or bi-curious, and many of the various couples are interracial or unconventionally paired. Nomi, for instance, is introduced to the audience in the midst of penetration by her black girlfriend, who wears a strap-on that she discards in wet, squishy close-up. Every story also revolves around a secret or shame that’s spurred by patriarchal oppression, and it’s already evident that the protagonists’ mental powers are intended as a metaphor, a la the X-Men, for that fragile something inside each of us that can be potentially deformed or destroyed by the pressures of conformity.
But, like many of the Wachowskis’ films, this show’s brand of rebellion is over-rehearsed, self-conscious, and stifling. There are no casual touches in Sense8, and the Wachowskis’ fashionable and unsurprising “fight the power” message meshes tediously with typical action beats that are further glossed over with said narrative parallels. All of this effort strikingly reeks of over-compensation. The eight stories are always in climactic media res, and the showrunners are constantly summing things up with banal action-movie dialogue and visual emphases that congratulate themselves for the racial and sexual variety of their subjects. The images, rendered by cinematographer John Toll in the first three episodes, are often ravishing. Umbrellas at a funeral aren’t merely umbrellas at a funeral, but a perfect flock of black canvases that are painstakingly complemented by a rainbow. Moody club-noir neon punctuates virtually every interior scene, most notably and amusingly when a woman enters a room and stands in front of a white couch that’s situated in front of white window frames which both perfectly offset the black pillows that match her skirt. If Sense8 evinced a sense of humor, one might mistake this last flourish for a stroke of bold wit, acknowledging bluntly what the series ultimately adds up to: window dressing.