Review: Netflix's 'Sense8' makes no sense at first, but will it by binge's end?
"Sense8" is a show that could only exist on Netflix (or another streaming service like it), because no human would have the patience to watch it weekly.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Among its originals, Netflix has some great shows ("Orange Is the New Black" and "BoJack Horseman," to name two) and some lesser ones, but good or bad, the Netflix series only occasionally seem made with the Netflix distribution model in mind. Though they have serialized elements, most of them are structured in the exact same way as their counterparts that air in a traditional pattern on cable or broadcast TV. (Ditto most of Amazon's originals.) Previous attempts to design shows explicitly for the streaming/binge world — like Mitch Hurwitz's aborted plan to make "Arrested Development" season 4 viewable in any order — haven't worked out, and I'm still waiting for someone to find a way to explicitly configure their series so it wouldn't make sense to watch them any other way.
"Sense8" (whose first season debuts tonight at midnight Pacific) isn't quite that, in part because the three episodes I've seen don't necessarily promise a great experience by the time the season's done. But it's the closest I've seen so far, if only because it seems to have been made under the assumption that people will watch it in one burst, or not at all.
The show comes from a group of creators who have experience in redefining how we view entertainment. Back in the '90s, J. Michael Straczynski created the sci-fi epic "Babylon 5," one of the very first shows to employ the Novel For Television approach, where Straczynski had most of the series already mapped out(*) before he made a single episode. Here, he's partnered with the Wachowskis, who rewrote the visual language for action and science fiction with "The Matrix," and who have tried to experiment — with mixed degrees of creative and commercial success — with form and content with most of their ensuing films.
(*) Real life ultimately interfered with these plans, as always happens ("The Wire" also isn't exactly the story David Simon would have told under perfect circumstances). "Babylon 5" was ultimately a groundbreaker without being an influencer, since it's not widely known outside its circle of fiercely devoted fans. The people who would make intensely serialized shows in the '00s tend to credit other works as inspiration, but not "B5."
Together, Straczynski and the Wachowskis have teamed up to make a show about... well, I'm not entirely sure. There are eight central characters, scattered around the world — they live in Chicago, London, Nairobi, Seoul, Mexico City, Mumbai, Berlin, and San Francisco — each with their own separate narrative and problems, each essentially existing in a different storytelling genre, but all are connected... somehow. The show opens with a scene featuring its most recognizable actors, Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews (Sayid from "Lost"), having a largely incomprehensible conversation about the other eight, all of whom are linked by a “biological synaptic network.” As we bounce from character to character, there are occasional moments where one suddenly finds herself in the same room with another who should be thousands of miles away, or staring into the mirror to see another's reflection, or borrowing the skills of another member of the group (whose ranks include a cop, a safecracker, a mixed martial artist and a club DJ, among other jobs; the DJ'ing has yet to come in handy for someone else, but I have faith it will).
Is the other person really there? If one fights for another, are they taking over their body, or just somehow lending their skill? None of that is clear, because very little about the larger point of the show is. When the cop tells Andrews that he fears he's losing his mind, the most concrete thing Andrews tells him is, "No, it's just expanding."
In reviewing ABC's "The Whispers" the other day (which discussed "Sense8" in passing), Fienberg referred to the phenomenon of No Breadcrumbs TV, where creators assume their audience will be watching in chunks, if not all at once, and that the show therefore doesn't have to hold its viewers' hands to keep them following the story from episode to episode. That approach is much more valid with a Netflix show than it is with an ABC show at this point, and Straczynski and the Wachowskis seem determined to test just how much they can withhold from their audience before everyone loses patience, even if people can watch the whole season in a day. In the early going, at least, the show's larger story is complete gibberish.
The smaller stories are a mixed bag, but it's fun watching the creators try to mash together so many different genres and character types into the same show, so that we can bounce from a sex farce in Mexico City to a Bollywood marriage drama to a more personal drama involving a transgender woman (Jamie Clayton) and her girlfriend (Freema Agyeman) in San Francisco. Individually, some of the mini-shows are more engaging than others — Lana Wachowski is trans herself, and has worked queer and/or trans themes into a lot of her work(**), and there's a personal stamp on those scenes that isn't necessarily present, say, when we're following the safecracker (Max Riemelt) in Berlin. And the Mexico City scenes, involving a TV star (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) with a secret, are a relief because their lightness cuts through the pretensions of a series that — with its globe-spanning design(***) and love of philosophizing — often feels a half-step away from evoking the worst of Tim Kring on "Heroes" and "Touch." (Similarly, scenes involving Aml Ameen as a Nairobi commuter van driver can approach despair given the setting, yet are leavened by the fact that the van is named after, and decorated with images of, Jean Claude Van Damme.)
(**) As I understand it, Straczynski intended to have Delenn on "Babylon 5" start the series as a male alien (albeit played by a woman) and transform into a female alien after the first season, but abandoned the idea because the technology wasn't good enough at the time to make an actress sound convincingly male at the start. Both technically and in terms of larger cultural awareness of trans issues, that would have been much simpler to pull off today.
(***) Oddly, all the characters speak English in every setting, regardless of whom they're encountering. Straczynski told Fienberg (in an interview to be published later this week) that the approach is more or less like in "The Hunt for Red October," where we will all hear English when people are alone with their countrymen, but as the characters start to have more prolonged encounters, the Berlin safecracker might speak German in front of the confused Chicago cop. I suppose we should be thankful for one less thing to complicate a show that's already hard to follow by design, but given how comfortable other current dramas like "The Americans" are with extended subtitle sequences, it's the most retrograde element in a show that's otherwise pushing a lot of boundaries.
It helps that the Wachowskis, who directed the first three episodes (other directors will include their "Cloud Atlas" collaborator Tom Tykwer) have such great eyes. Even when I had little idea what was happening, and/or why I should be caring, "Sense8" is great to look at, and its palette shifts as we move from setting to setting and genre to genre. Whether they're reluctant to explain in dialogue exactly what's linking these people together, or simply have trouble articulating it in a way that makes any sense, they have no difficulty at all drawing those lines visually. There's a fight scene late in the third episode, involving one character somehow drawing on the skills of two of the others, that's both beautiful as a bit of action choreography and far clearer in conveying the connection between these strangers. The experience makes sense, even if the story doesn't quite.
"Sense8" has a lot on its mind, as the brief encounters between its leads quickly blur boundaries of nationality, gender and sexuality, among other heady topics. It's aiming for something big, and while these three episodes give me no idea if they can ultimately hit the mark, they're also more interesting than they have any right to be considering how incoherent so much of it is.
I wouldn't call "Sense8" the platonic ideal of a Netflix show, because there will be people who understandably give up at the end of the first episode (if not sooner) and warn everyone they know not to bother. But because it will be so easy to go on to the next episode, and the one after that, all the way to the end, I imagine it will engender a lot more patience (particularly among those who revere any or all of "Babylon 5," "Cloud Atlas" or the two "Matrix" sequels) than if it was HBO's new summer Sunday night drama.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org