Midway through Sense8: A Christmas Special, two of the sci-fi drama’s eponymous eight main characters — part of a superhuman “cluster” who can share emotions, experiences, and even skills with one another despite being scattered around the globe — find themselves mentally meeting again as Mumbai pharmacist Kala (Tina Desai) wrestles with a big decision about her marriage and Korean martial artist Sun (Doona Bae) appears before her. Kala wonders why another member of the cluster is with her, and why Sun, in particular.
“I think we all know how this works by now,” Sun insists.
“Do we?” Kala replies. “It works very inconsistently for me.”
This is Sense8 co-creators Lana Wachwoski and J. Michael Straczynski (they wrote the special together; Wachowski directed it) at their most self-aware, and self-deprecating. In its first season, Sense8 was an enormous creative swing: a show filmed on multiple continents, where each member of the cluster is essentially the lead in their own separate storytelling genre (Sun in a prison revenge fantasy, for instance, and Kala in a marriage plot), with a byzantine mythology and set of rules for how its leads interact. At times, especially early on, it was pretentious gibberish with beautiful photography — the more it tried to explain itself, the worse it got. By the end of the season, it still wasn’t easy to follow a lot of the time, but the characters were interacting so frequently, and so well, that the emotional experience of it made the sketchy plotting almost irrelevant. It turned out to be a lovely, if at times nonsensical, symphony about the ways we do and don’t connect with each other.
Like most new shows, the first season was filled with trial and error, and made in a vacuum before the creative team could get an outside perspective of what was working and what wasn’t. The Christmas special, which is essentially a two-hour premiere for a second season that otherwise won’t arrive until May(*), is more polished, and more conscious — occasionally too conscious — of what the audience responded to the first time.
(*) Since the special (which debuts tomorrow) just continues the story from the end of season 1 and sets things up for other season 2 episodes, the Netflix interface will wisely just consider it part of the second season, rather than treating it as a standalone program, like the BoJack Horseman Christmas special.
There’s no real story thread to tie everything together, and the Christmas aspect of it doesn’t turn up until the final third. Mainly, it’s a collection of vignettes advancing different arcs, including closeted Mexican actor Lito (Migue Angel Silvestre) dealing with a threat to his career, trans hacker Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) being on the run from the FBI, and Icelandic DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton) trying to keep Chicago cop Will (Brian J. Smith) protected from Whispers (Terrence Mann), a fellow sensate who likes to hunt down members of other clusters.
Mainly, though, it’s just an excuse for montages. Many, many montages, all scored to interesting music, all finding novel ways to show the eight leads sharing the same experiences from thousands of miles away, from a joint birthday celebration to an orgy.
It’s hard to blame Wachowski and Straczynski from doing this, since the montages were the most beloved part of the first season, starting with this random international 4 Non Blondes singalong: