B+

Review: Netflix’s ambitious, uneven, and occasionally brilliant ‘Sense8’

Senior Television Writer
06.25.15 83 Comments

Netflix

I was wrong on a few fronts when I reviewed Netflix's “Sense8” after only three episodes. I suggested it would be a series that people would want to watch all at once, or not at all, when in fact I strung my viewing out over three weeks, only feeling a need to immediately jump to the next episode when I was nearing the season's end. And I thought the show's mythology would have to feel much less like gibberish for the full season to feel satisfying, when I ultimately enjoyed it even though I still couldn't tell you – nor did I really care – how these connections work.

(Some minor spoilers follow, but if you're still just wondering if you should bother with “Sense8” at all, most of it should be safe to read, and I'll put in a warning before we get into more details.)

These days, I hear more and more from people who suggest that critics shouldn't review shows – and particularly binge-able shows like this – without watching the whole season. I strongly disagree, not just because this is the way my job has been done since it was created, but because in an age of limitless choices, people want to know early whether they should be making time for a new show the moment it debuts. That said, I think Netflix did “Sense8” a disservice by not making even a handful of additional episodes available to critics in advance, because the character intersections are largely so brief and inconsequential in the first three, other than Sun helping Capheus in his fight against the hijackers. The next several episodes, meanwhile, feature some of the best group interactions of the season. In particular, the international singalong of 4 Non Blondes' “What's Up?” in episode 4 is the sort of thing that sounds ridiculous on paper, and has virtually nothing to do with the plot of the season, yet the feeling of it, and the way it draws these eight disparate people so tightly together, is really powerful. That was the moment, even more than the fight scene, that convinced me to see this thing out, whether the larger arc became more coherent or not.

And while there was a bit more logic to the universe added later on – most of it explained in clumsy info dumps from Naveen Andrews' Jonas – “Sense8” turned out to be a show that, like its characters, was tied together far more by emotion than reason. There were these moments like the singalong or some of the other sequences that involved a larger chunk of the main cast, that pushed any questions of how this was happening, or why, completely out of mind, because all that mattered was the feeling of them. They didn't come constantly, but they happened often enough that they were the breadcrumbs leading me through the season, rather than additional info about how the group's powers worked. There would be long stretches where my patience ebbed, and then the show would present a moment that no other show could do – nor would any even try – and it would hit me like a ton of bricks and keep me engaged.

In essentially stuffing eight different TV shows – including a Mexican sex farce, a German revenge thriller and a Korean prison drama, among others – into one, the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski were not being light in their ambitions. Ideally, that approach offers an access point for everyone. The problem is that it turns the show into the Kellogg's Fun Pak, where in order to get the Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops in conveniently-sized boxes, you also have to get Apple Jacks and other cereals you have no interest in. Some of the stories were engaging on their own(*), but others dragged except for those moments where another one of the group would materialize to help out.

(*) The mini-shows that stood out tended to feature one or more compelling supporting characters who weren't part of the psychic link. In San Francisco, Nomi and Amanita's relationship is so well-drawn that I could easily imagine watching a show that's just them as hackers and amateur private eyes, dropping random literary references (Jack Reacher and Nancy Drew in the same scene!) and getting into trouble that has nothing to do with this larger mythology. Similarly, the Mexico City stuff stands out not just because it's lighter in tone than almost everything else on the show, but because Lito's boyfriend and fake girlfriend become interesting figures in their own right in the way that, say, Will's partner in the Chicago PD does not.

The large cast and sprawl also led to pacing issues where characters would disappear for large swaths of time, only popping up when their talent (say, Capheus' facility behind the wheel) was needed by another member of the group. Even when I watched a handful of episodes close together, there would be moments when I was startled to be reminded of the existence of someone who had been very prominent a few hours earlier.

This is a series of big swing by the Wachowskis, Straczynski, and Netflix, and “Sense8” ultimately hits for power more than average. When it works – during almost any action sequence, or during those moments when two or more people from the show's scattered locales reach new understandings with each other – it's special. And when it misses, it makes you appreciative that you don't have to wait a week or more while hoping to get back to the magic.

This is the kind of creative gamble a company rolling in money like Netflix should be taking, and a particular one I'd like to see continue, even if it remains a show that only hits some of the time.

A few more spoiler-y thoughts, for those of you who already finished this weird but at times wonderful season:

* I joked in that initial review that Riley's DJ skills would turn out to be useful for another member of the cluster at some point of crisis. That didn't really happen – her big moment was overcoming the trauma of her baby's death in order to save Will – but I was impressed with how frequently the writers were able to find a plot utility for almost everyone else. In particular, Lito's acting talents proved surprisingly, and entertainingly, handy in crises where you wouldn't expect him to have much value. On the other hand, it feels like they may have given Wolfgang  too many skills – he's practically a Liam Neeson character by the end of the season – even though his one-man war on the local crime syndicate was fun to watch.

* If the show does continue, I assume we'll eventually get some technobabble to explain how our heroes can get Whispers out of Will's head, since I don't imagine the creators want to keep the group's unofficial leader drugged into unconsciousness for the bulk of the season. But the mechanics of how the powers work ultimately proved so much less interesting than their results, so if they want to wave that away in just a couple of sentences, I wouldn't complain.

* The Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer and the show's other directors were unsurprisingly great at the fight and chase scenes, and Doona Bae made an excellent action heroine muse for them, even as several of the other actors – sometimes as their characters fought with Sun's abilities, sometimes not – got to join in on the fun. At the same time, watching Lito film “Matrix”-y fight scenes on wires was an amusing wink at the way the Wachowskis rewrote the language of movie combat.

* One of the more interesting stylistic tangents involved the way the powers seemed to enhance memory along with connection, so that all eight could somehow recall the moment of their own births – presented at times in very graphic “It's not TV; it's Netflix” fashion – once the music of Riley's father prompted her down that path.

* Speaking of memory, by the end of the season, some of the characters were interacting so frequently that, as I began writing this paragraph, I briefly convinced myself that Will actually went to San Francisco to meet Nomi, when in fact he and Riley were the only two characters to meet in the physical world. If the show continues, I wonder how frequently the characters will wind up in the same location, or if their powers renders that a moot point. Capheus never has to physically leave Kenya to see the wonders of America or India, after all, nor to speak with or help out his new friends.

* I don't know that Capheus' love of Jean-Claude Van Damme has inspired me to revisit his filmography, but anyone who wants to suggest a proper JCVD Top 5 list, by all means.

* Straczynski told Fienberg that the characters all sounded as if they were speaking English, even if they were meant to be conversing in Swahili, Spanish or some other language, in the manner of World War II movies. Initially, when the characters began to intersect, we would hear them speaking in their own languages to make the differences clear, but after a few episodes – and after their mental paths had crossed enough that they felt closer to all these people – it was back to all-English again.

For those who watched the whole season, what did you think of it? Would you come back for more, or did you come out of it wondering what Netflix, the Wachowskis and Straczynski were doing spending so much time and money on this?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Around The Web