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:
But over the course of two-plus hours, the sheer amount of time devoted to the montages is just too much, especially when one of the later ones is accompanied by yet another cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a beautiful song that should have been retired by the movie and TV industries years ago.
Still, it felt good to be back in all these different worlds, to see all these familiar faces — plus a new one, since Toby Onwumere replaced Aml Ameen as Kenyan van driver Capheus between seasons (Onwumere gets his own meta introduction) — and to be reminded of just how ingratiatingly playful Sense8 can be in the midst of its many big ideas, ambitious plot ideas, and intricately choreographed fight scenes. Sun, for instance, has turned into quite the banterer as she comes to view her interactions with the cluster as a temporary escape from prison, and she develops a nice buddy cop vibe with the group’s other designated badass, German thief Wolfgang (Max Riemelt). And the running joke about Capheus’ van being named (and styled) after Jean-Claude Van Damme somehow never gets old. That sly sense of humor, and the willingness to occasionally wink at the audience and admit something isn’t quite working, makes the show’s affectations much easier to go along with than on its more grim-faced Netflix sibling The OA.
Riley and Will’s team-up — the only instance so far of two people in the group physically being in the same place at the same time — is a bit on the glum side, as she has to keep pumping him with heroin to keep Whispers from finding them, but even there it represents an improvement over the first season. Sense8‘s best shows-within-the-show tended to be ones with strong supporting characters, whether Nomi with Amanita or Lito with his boyfriend Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and their enthusiastic beard Daniela (Erendira Ibarra). Riley and Will never really had that in season 1, but now at least they have each other(*).
(*) This moves the both of them ahead of Kala in my unofficial Sense8 sub-show rankings; yours will of course vary wildly, and are also complicated by the fact that you have to judge characters both on their own and with other members of the group. Capheus is more interesting just having adventures with the van and his buddy Jela (Paul Ogola), where Will only comes to life when he’s interacting with the cluster. (Others, like Sun and Lito, work well in pretty much any context.)
It’s that spirit of connection that makes the show so appealing even when it’s at its fuzziest or most self-indulgent. At one point in the special, Nomi hides out with hacker friend Bug (Michael X. Sommers), who insists he’s not lonely at holiday time because he has a community of friends online with whom he can share his life even if they never meet in person. She smiles as he says it, because he’s describing a less supernatural version of what she shares with Lito, Sun, and the others.
It’s nice to be able to reconnect with people you like at holiday time, whether it’s through a psychic link, a private chat room, or streaming an endearingly imperfect show that wants to be everything at once, and succeeds at far more than it has any business doing.
Feliz navidad, Sense8. I look forward to reuniting again in the spring.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com