Sense8 Season One

Capheus "visits" Riley in front of the coolest gravestone ever
When Sense8 was first released by Netflix, I tried it -- and was so bored that I fell asleep before the end of the first episode. That doesn't usually happen to me, so I gave the rest of Sense8 a pass. When the second season was announced, I gave it another try, and this time I managed to stay awake. I'm glad I did.

Where this series succeeds is its astounding visuals. It's "international" with a capital I, in a medium where "international" usually means bringing in a couple of actors from Europe. We spent a lot of time in Nairobi, Seoul, Mumbai and Mexico City, as well as London, Berlin, Chicago and San Francisco, with a huge climax in Reykjavik. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, even the self-consciously epic opening credits. Sense8 is colorful and fun to watch, and the characters are all appealing.

But the thing is, I kept waiting for the series to click in for me. And waiting... and waiting... and ultimately, it didn't happen. When it was over, I thought about why, and did a face palm. It's obvious. They were doing eight different stories, and that many stories at once is difficult to track, even with the characters "visiting" each other to spout exposition, or taking over each other's bodies to save the day. And those eight stories ranged from pretty cool to somewhat dull. I kept waiting for the eight "sensates" to start connecting in the real world, to do the logical thing like exchange phone numbers or take a flight and meet in real life, and it kept not happening. (Okay, the phone number thing did happen once.) But cheese and crackers, can anyone say "conference call"?

And a lot of this first season was centered on the characters' sex lives, so much so that the series started to seem soapy to me. The mental orgy was actually embarrassing instead of titillating. Or maybe that was just me. I have to be into the characters for a big sex scene to work for me.

Actually, the scene I liked most in the entire series was the eight of them singing "What's Going On." Certainly a sentiment that worked, since none of them knew what was going on. But the multiple childbirth scene during the concert in Iceland that was clearly intended to be the climactic and moving moment of ultimate connection made me gag. Maybe I just wasn't prepared for all of those shots of so many babies' heads crowning between so many different pairs of thighs. You kind of have to be prepared for stuff like that, not intersperse it with nice shots of each of them enjoying the concert.

Labels

Each of the eight sensates can be described with two keywords and their location.

-- Nomi, the transwoman hacker in San Francisco (Jamie Clayton)
-- Will, the nice cop in Chicago (Brian J. Smith from Stargate Universe)
-- Sun, the jailed kickboxer in Seoul (Doona Bae)
-- Wolfgang, the violent safecracker in Berlin (Max Riemelt)
-- Lito, the closeted actor in Mexico City (Miguel Angel Silvestre)
-- Riley, the Icelandic DJ in London (Tuppence Middleton)
-- Kala, the religious bride-to-be in Mumbai (Tina Desai)
-- Who did I forget? Yes, Capheus, the Van Damme-obsessed bus driver in Nairobi (Aml Ameen), who probably had the strongest story, but always felt as if he were the most disconnected from the group.

As the episodes progressed, I kept counting the eight sensates, and kept remembering only seven at a time. (Not the same seven.) That's not something you want your viewers to do when they should be caught up in the story. And everyone was, and I can't believe I'm saying this, too progressive. I'm a flaming liberal and would love it if the world was actually like that, where a straight Chicago cop was okay with suddenly finding himself in the middle of a gay orgy. But it made the series more unrealistic, and Sense8 is already too unrealistic to begin with.

I'm into characters. If a show doesn't have great characters, I won't love it. And you'd think that these eight diverse characters would be just my thing. But as I've mentioned already, I never truly connected with any of them, and that's a problem.

Nomi, played beautifully by transgender actress Jamie Clayton, was my favorite, although her initially exciting and upsetting plotline in which she was nearly the victim of a forced lobotomy segued into a less exciting role as a magical hacker. I liked Kala, mostly because she was just so utterly adorable and I loved her family, although her will-she-or-won't-she-marry-the-boss's-son was my second least favorite plotline. Capheus was extremely lovable because of the way he kept acting on his beliefs -- this is right, this is wrong, Van Damme always comes back -- and his touching quest for his courageous mother's AIDS medication.

Sun arrived because serious ass-kicking was clearly needed
But Sun infuriated me by confessing to her brother's crime and going to prison for it (my least favorite plotline) and she only seemed to show up in the story when serious asskicking was needed. I didn't like Wolfgang at all for most of the series, although that changed when we got more backstory about his abusive childhood and why he loved his goofy best friend Felix. Lito and his over the top telenovela action sequences should have been more fun than they were, and while I sympathized with his reasons for staying in the closet and sort of enjoyed Daniela's obsession with Lito and Hernando, it was all so frustrating. It was obvious from the beginning that Daniela's presence would screw things up for Lito somehow, although it didn't turn out as I expected. Not yet, anyway, since we don't know the consequences of Lito outing himself to the bartender.

I did love how Lito the actor was brought in only
when they needed someone to lie convincingly.
Romance

We were told that romantic love between sensates in a cluster was bad, bad, so very bad. And yet, Will the cop's romantic connection with Riley the DJ turned out to be the focus of the season, the motivation for all the action in the finale. I liked them together, but they were probably the least exciting couple in the story. I liked Wolfgang and Kala a lot more, probably because Wolfgang was so emotionally disturbed and pessimistic and Kala so bright and positive; they seemed like two people who could be very good for each other. Or maybe Kala would be good for Wolfgang, not vice versa. Although she seemed pretty warm for his form. (Full frontal male nudity. Surprise.)

I loved Kala's yellow pants. Wolfgang does, too.
And I really enjoyed Nomi's deep love connection with Amanita. (Although that first scene together made me go, what? Is that Martha from Doctor Who with a strap-on?) Nomi and "Neets" being so passionately up front about their love for each other was like a counterbalance to Lito and Hernando keeping their secret love confined to Lito's penthouse.

Neets and Nomi and the incredible colorful dreads
Lack of Sense...8

I still don't understand what was going on with Naveen Andrews' character Jonas, and since I was totally immersed in Lost for six seasons, Naveen was a big reason why I tried Sense8 a second time. They also never explained how Daryl Hannah's character Angelica could "give birth" to our sensates by killing herself. I sort of got why the bad guy with the white hair was after them, but then again, maybe I didn't. To save the "real" humans? If the bad guy is a sensate, why is he targeting other sensates? Just so he can lobotomize them and then use their bodies when he needs a disposable assassin? Are all of the bad guys "Whispers" or is it just the white-haired guy? And why does he keep taking on the names of science fiction writers?


The show is supposed to be about empathy and mental connection, and yet the big stories all culminated with a whole lotta massive and bloody action sequences: Capheus and his enemies in the warehouse, Wolfgang and his uncle and many of his uncle's henchmen not to mention the rocket launcher earlier, the climax in episode twelve with all of the sensates helping Will rescue Riley. Very Wachowskis. But you know, I connect more strongly with J. Michael Straczynski and his powerful universe-building. I kept looking for his influence in this story, and not finding it.

There are so many other unanswered questions, too. Why is Riley still alive after the car accident that killed her husband and baby? Why was young Will "seeing" victim Sara Patrell? Was Lito's career destroyed when he outed himself to the bartender? Why is Angelica wearing only one shoe?

I guess it's a good thing that there will be a second season. And yes, I'll watch it. But I honestly have no desire to go back and write a detailed review of each episode, hence the season review. (I do love occasions when I can use the word "hence".)

What did you all think? Did you love it? Hate it? Will you tune in to season two?
---
Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.

12 comments:

sunbunny said...

My favorite character was definitely Amanita's magical unicorn hair. Although her accent wasn't the greatest and I kept wondering why they didn't just make her an Englishwoman living in San Francisco. I agree that Sun was poorly used. It felt like she was a weapon more than a character. Wasn't as big of a fan of Capheus as you. I mean, he was human sunshine, but, as you noted, his story was always so removed from everyone else's.

I had a big problem with the whole Nomi lobotomy storyline. It was definitely effective in its scariness but I kept wondering why Amanita didn't call the ACLU first thing.

Glad you reviewed this one Billie!

Billie Doux said...

Yeah, I was thinking ACLU, too. Especially since Nomi was a hacktivist. :)

I just looked back through my review and realized how little I said about the two who were probably the main characters -- Will and Riley.

Jess Lynde said...

I think this one lends itself better to a full season review. A lot of times the individual episodes didn't amount to much on their own except a collection of moments, and you needed to get through a chunk of them to have a sense of overall momentum. The series seems to work better as an overall story, rather than as a collection of discrete episodes.

I found this series much more absorbing than you did, Billie, but I can't deny that it was flawed in many ways. (What the hell is going on with the mythology? I'm not sure I really care at this point.) I just cottoned to the characters more than you did, and as a result lots of the smaller moments between them really resonated with me. In ways that eclipsed the jumbled overall mythology. I loved the moments when Capheus ("human sunshine" --- love it, sunbunny!) was first connecting with Sun (as she wrestled with the terrible decision to take the fall for her brother) and Riley (something about the movie watching and his delight at the tea really sung for me). I also really loved how excited Capheus's friend got when the van was full of passengers and they were cruising down the road (even though I knew things would likely turn sour).

I was probably most moved by the scenes between Lito and Nomi at the museum and later Riley and Capheus at the grave site. The discussion between Nomi and Lito, in particular, about her history as Mike and her finding peace with her true self was really quite powerful and resonant (no doubt influenced by Lana Wachowski's own experiences). And Riley's heartbreaking past just wrecked me. The shot of her lying on the mountain wrapped around her dead baby left me sobbing profusely. The contrast between the cold, majestic beauty of the sunrise and the utter devastation of the moment for her tore me up.

So, I'm looking forward to whatever fun, craziness (that rocket launcher!), stunning visuals, and crushing heartbreak they've got cooked up for us next season!

Brief thought on the mythos: I don't think it was Angelica killing herself that awakened the sensates. I think she did whatever she did to wake them, then killed herself to keep Whispers from finding them. Didn't work out so well, huh? Maybe she at least bought them enough time to discover and strengthen the connection before he found them.

lisianpeia said...

I was going to write a lengthy comment, but then I read Jess' comment and I basically agree with her. I think I loved and connected with the series more then Billie.
About all of them being too progressive: I thought about it too. It kainda bugged me, but than again it didn't. We have too many TV show that portrait conservative people, so I thought it was nice to see something different.
About taking a flight: I kept thinking that too. But the more I think about it, the more it doesn't make sense for them to do that. They can be in each other's mind, what better communication device?
I loved all the characters. I think the plotline that I most liked was Sun's. Capheus was indeed a "human sunshine", but his unfounded optimism was kinda bugging. I liked Sun's dilemma, even though I don't agree with her decision. And I agree Kala's plotline was a bit boring.
My favorites scenes were them singing "What's Going On" and the multiple childbirth ^^

Laure Mack said...

Here's the thing... I really liked this season, but when I try to pinpoint why I come up a little empty.

I was frustrated that no one jumped on a flight too. It seemed insane. I guess like others pointed out, we were supposed to assume that their connections are so intense that they don't need to hassle with airfare and security check points. Still, it was distracting. Nomi was a fugitive hiding in her own apartment while there were seven safe-houses she could use scattered around the globe. Weird. Speaking of Nomi, her almost lobotomy was by far the only plot line that had me on the edge of my seat. Creep factor times 100 million.

I usually find the damaged bad boy an overused stereotype, but Wolfgang was my favorite sense8. Amanita's unicorn hair was a close second! Even though Riley's backstory is the only one that choked me up. Also, did Suns brother really murder their father, because wow. That's cold.

I'm glad there will be a second season, and I will definitely be tuning in.

Joseph Pennycook said...

I feel pretty similar to most of the commenters, and connected to the characters a bit more than Billie, despite the suspicion that Sun and Capheus weren't much more than stereotypes (even though I really enjoyed those two characters).

I thought Whispers worked really well as a villain, mainly because of the creepy body language of how close he leaned into Jonas and Will. I feel like I missed a step of logic at the end though; are they ever going to let Will regain consciousness? Because Whispers is never going to be out of his head? I don't think the show can really get around killing Will or Whispers if they want the rest of the sensates to realistically seem at all safe.

Josie Kafka said...

Excellent review, Billie.

I tried the first episode and felt very blah about it. About a month later, I tried the second episode and felt equally blah. Maybe I'll just watch the series on month at a time, when I can't think of what else to watch?

I kept counting the eight sensates, and kept remembering only seven at a time. (Not the same seven.)

According to my mother, the human brain is hardwired to only store 5 plus or minus 2 items in short-term memory.

Billie Doux said...

If it helps any, the episode that made me want to keep watching was number four, "What's Going On." Which also contains my favorite scene.

Josie Kafka said...

I'll give it a shot to episode four, then!

(Just not right now.)

mona said...

thx for the review Billie :)

I really loved the show. But since its been quite a while ago that I watched it (and I watched so much in the meantime ><), I cant really give valid arguments to why I do.
I think its the fresh ideas/concept paired with a beautiful cinematographie. Also a lot of times it depends on my feelings towards an actor/actress... Does anyone know what I mean? I dont cosider myself a shallow person by any means, but when a new show comes along I need to like the "looks" of the main characters (not all, if there are multiple. it might even suffice if a minor character intrigues me). I dont mean he has to be "pretty"... I dunno... its hard to describe. But if I do like the actor/actress, then its easier for me to like a show. If I dont, then it might take a while, it might need to be recommended by ppl whose oppinions I trust or I might never get into it. E.g. I really didnt like Supernatural at first ^^° I couldnt watch it xD So strange, I cant get into that headspace again now, its so different.
On the other hand, there are a lot of shows I watch/ed just because I find the actors intriguing or pretty (yeah, I admit, sometimes I just like watching pretty ppl -.-). I rarely lasts though. Either the show itself is interesting enough or it is cancelled or the actors arent enough after a while.
Phew, I get to my point now xDDDD I think one big factor about sese8 for me is that I "click" with the actors of every main character. I think I would be much more critical if I didnt find them kinda adorable for the most part ^^°
Also: I am from germany and we do not take offense in nudity that much (compared to america: not at all :P). And all the sexual stuff really didnt bother me. It was a little quick for the characters to get involved with each other this way IMO, but I can kind of understand that it would be so overwhelming that one could just "go with it".

Maybe in the end I fell more in love with the idea, actors and the possible potential then the actual show :)

Well, I think I said enough for the next two years now xD

Anonymous said...

A bit late, but at the time I watched it, this review wasn't up and I just noticed it. Although I feel I liked the show better than you did, my general feelings are not dissimilar. After three episodes I was mildly intrigued to figure out what was going on, and sometimes spellbound by the cinematography but not really captivated. Too many characters too disconnected from one another; it's the same problem I have with game of thrones (both book and show). Now that they have more understanding of their situation and are interacting more directly, I'm hoping for better in Season 2. And to be quite frank, the lives of many of the sensates weren't all that compelling.

With respect to Naveen's character and the empathy themes of the show: I'm not so sure he's a good guy. He seemed to me to convey a very us vs. them mentality. Sensate's higher empathy with one another made them superior but I wasn't sure he felt the rest of humanity was worth treating with empathy. At first, I thought the empathy of the other sensates would be a softening influence on Wolfgang, but thus far the influence may be going the other way, as he already made Kala and Will accessories to his crimes. And his dark side was pointedly useful to the sensates in the driving scene. Maybe this show will ultimately be about empathy for humanity in general vs tribalism, empathy only towards your own group.

A few comments on the other characters. Riley is the last sensate who hasn't really help the others with a unique skill. Will seems a bit too much of a white knight to me, but maybe he's intended as a kind of foil for Wolfgang.

Although some have criticized the show for stereotyping in its portrayal of the non-western cultures, I think they're deliberately playing with Mexican soap opera, Bollywood, and Asian martial arts films. I feel kind of bad for Kala's boyfriend though since he seems like such a nice fellow. Maybe we can set him up with a hot Mexican actress.

My last comment: clearly one of the show's messages is that it doesn't matter what your race, gender or sexual orientation is, as long as you're young and beautiful.

Billie Doux said...

Terrific comment, Anonymous. Especially those last two lines. I wish I'd said that.