“Sense8” and Sensibilities

The Netflix series, Sense8, was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski (Matrix movies) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). The name comes from the eight primary characters in the show, who are sensates, from the Latin, meaning "endowed with perception." (Get it? Sense...8.)

It’s a metaphysical blend of action-adventure, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/thriller, and even romance. Filmed on location in eight countries, the show is unparalleled in its scope, with breathtaking cinematography. The scenes are shot on the streets of Mumbai, Nairobi, and in the middle of San Francisco Pride. Using local crews and actors, it’s probably the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen assembled on a single TV show—racially, ethnically, culturally, geographically, religiously...and ethically. (I recommend this 'Making of' feature.) There are strong, powerful women characters, and there’s also variance with regards to gender-identification, gender expression and sexual orientation. (I loved that they used a Trans actress to play the Trans character.)

The show is about eight beautiful sensates from around the world who discover they’ve been telepathically linked. (We learn there are other sensates, so I assume that non-gorgeous people have their own clusters.)

Nomi, a San Francisco trans activist/blogger
Will, a compassionate Chicago cop
Lito, a Mexican action movie superstar
Riley, a popular Icelandic DJ, living in London
Sun, a successful Korean business executive
Kala, an Indian pharmacist
Wolfgang, a German safe cracker
Capheus, a struggling Nairobi bus driver

The eight new “sensates” are "birthed" into their cluster by Angelica/Angel, who promptly dies. The only person who now knows them is Jonas, who was clustered with Angel. It seems he wants to guide and protect the new group. Or maybe now.

Unlike shows like Lost or X-Men, where the characters have special powers (teleportation, flying, immortality) these are essentially ordinary people. And we get to see their faults, foibles, doubts, struggles...and strengths. Now connected, they can experience each other's lives, draw on one another’s strengths, and feel the emotions of the others. (Which can be awkward when you're tuned into a sensate who's involved in a more carnal encounter.) They're no longer just "I," they are “we.” As the bond grows, the sensates can “visit” one another, as if they are simultaneously in the same location, and they can “share” the skills and abilities of each other. (Making for some fun, innovative, awesome action scenes, as well as a couple of intense sexual experiences.)

We also learn there’s a sinister person named "Whispers" who's part of a sinister organization out to capture them and take away their abilities. (Isn’t there always?) Early in the series the sensates are told not to look him in the eyes, because it will give him access to their thoughts, and their location.

My Observations:
The story initially moved slowly. Several times during Episodes One and Two, I almost stopped watching.

I am SO GLAD I didn’t!

The pace allowed me to not only meet the characters, but form strong, emotional attachments with them. I identified with them! They spoke to me.

I was captivated as Nomi talked about why she was marching in the Gay Pride parade: “For a long time, I was afraid to be who I am because I was taught by my parents that there’s something wrong with someone like me. Something offensive, something you would avoid, maybe even pity. Something that you could never love. I was afraid of this parade because I wanted so badly to be a part of it. So today, I’m marching for that part of me that was once too afraid to march. And for all the people who can’t march… the people living lives like I did. Today, I march to remember that I’m not just a me. I’m also a we. And we march with pride.”

I could identify when Wolfgang talked about Felix, his oldest friend, who was critically wounded in an attack meant for Wolfgang. “He’s my brother. And not by something as accidental as blood… by something much stronger. By choice.”

Hernando tell his lover, Lito, who's afraid to make their long-term relationship public: “In the end, we will all be judged by the courage of our hearts.”

When Nomi showed up at the Art Museum with brokenhearted Lito, and talked to him about her decision to be honest about her gender identity, regardless of bullies, the tears flowed. "The real violence," she said, "the violence that I realized was unforgivable, is the violence that we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are." And when Lito expresses concern that being honest could mean a loss of his job, she responded, "At a certain point I realized there’s a huge difference between what we work for and what we live for.”

By the end of the series, I was rooting for them. There's a final, panoramic scene on the boat that had me literally cheering at the TV! (I felt like part of their cluster.)

This show is probably NOT for everyone. There was violence, gore and gross stuff that usually doesn’t appeal to me. (I hid my eyes during a couple of scenes. And in one episode, each of the sensates relive their own birth, and that was icky...times eight!)

If you don’t like strong language, don’t watch.
If you have problems with honest depictions of LGBT people, don’t watch.
If you don’t like nudity, including (brief) male frontal, don’t watch.
In addition, there’s drug use, and questionable ethical/moral decisions by key characters.

Some have focused on (and objected to) the sexual content, which is definitely present. It’s been called “gratuitous,” though I've always considered that a subjective descriptor. I wonder if the objections to the six in Sense8 has less to do with the sexual activity and more to do with WHO is having sex. (The thrusting and moaning  of simulated sex between a man and woman might make you blush, but when it’s two women, following by the discarding of the...uhm, apparatus they used for the penetration, it can be shocking to conventional decorum.)  Personally, I don’t think the sex was excessive or gratuitous, any more than other shows we’d find on HBO or Showtime. It’s not graphic sex, but it's also not conventional. (Such as the much-publicized "group scene" in the pool, as several of the sensate telepathically experience the pleasure of others.)

Imparted to Me
I've watched it twice now. No, it's not a perfect show, but it captivated me. I think the slow pace that initially annoyed me eventually allowed me to get to know the characters—people very different than I am. And in the end, there were insights that have stuck with me.

  1. We’re unique, with our own strengths and our weakness.
    Our experiences and our skills vary, but we are connected. And when we look past our differences and draw on one another, it’s our diversity that makes us stronger. We don't lose our individuality, but we gain a perspective we never would've had otherwise, and we draw on a power beyond ourselves.
  2. Our choices define and distinguish us.
    In Episode 5, Capheus asks, "Who can say if it is we who make the choice, or the choice that makes us?"
    In the story, we get to know a group of people who have made, or are making, hard choices:
    - Nomi decided to live authentically, and transitioned to her true self.
    - In contrast, Lito chooses career over honesty. And love.
    - Sun will lie to honor her father and protect her brother.
    - Kala is planning to marry a man she does not love.
    - Capheus chooses to get his mother’s life-saving drugs.
    - Will is a good, honorable cop.
    - Wolfgang chooses crime. And revenge.

    More than the family into which we're born, or the culture in which we live, or the challenges in our life, it is our choices that make us who we are—particularly those choices that move us into honesty, integrity and authenticity.
  3. We must be selective with the Voices in our head.
    The sensates could hear one another, and help each other; they were there for strength and support. But that was not true of Whispers. Once he got into their thoughts, he only wanted to harm them.
    Likewise, we do ourselves a great service when we acknowledge that not every voice we hear wants what’s best for us; it’s essential to be cautious and selective.
    Each of us have those people in our life—currently or influential echos from our past—who "whisper" to us that we can’t, that we shouldn’t, that we’re not worthy, that we are not normal.
    We must not look to them.
    We should not give them access.
    They have no place living in our heads.
    We must not listen!

Sense8 is original, daring...and jarring. It examines what it means to be human (the title of one episode), and what it means to be "other." The show expands our perception of diversity—the variety of countries and cultures, the way people look and how they see themselves, their religious beliefs...or lack of beliefs, who and how they love, what they’ve overcome and the means they used to do it. We see their passions, their fears, their failures, their motivation, and their victories.

I think the fact folks are uncomfortable watching Sense8 is a good thing. We can’t identify with all of them, and we probably don’t agree with every decision they made; I don't think that's the point. But perhaps the show will create and initiate a desire to try and relate to those not like us. Hopefully, we can question, examine, challenged and even discard some of our own cultural and personal sensibilities!

That would be a...Gre8 thing!