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Review: Sense8 is the most promising sci-fi television series since Lost

After a few early hits like House of Cards and Arrested Development, Netflix has ramped up the rate at which it releases new programs. And because it drops binge-ready seasons all at once, a twisty science fiction thriller in the vein of Lost seems like a natural fit for the site. Enter Sense8, a fantastic, mind-bending new series co-created by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski.

Sense8 stars a diverse ensemble of eight women and men scattered across the globe: There’s a nervously closeted leading man in cheesy, Mexican action films; A sharp Korean businesswoman who vents her frustration about an extremely misogynist corporate culture by moonlighting as a brutal kickboxer; An Indian chemist who has second thoughts about her engagement to the wealthy and charming son of her boss; A kind, but short-fused German safe-cracker who’s embedded in a violent criminal family; A prodigal Icelandic DJ who’s fallen in with a bad crowd in London; An idealistic Chicago cop whose desire to help people doesn’t always jive with department politics; An affable driver in Nairobi, whose JCVD-themed bus, the Van Damn, is having trouble competing with the ever-popular Bat Van; And a transgender lesbian living in San Francisco who’s also a former hacker.

With race and gender representation such a frequent talking point in media lately, Sense8 proudly wears its inclusive heart on its sleeve.

All eight of these people are mysteriously connected, first by sharing visions of a woman they’ve never seen before (Daryl Hannah) in the violent final moments of her life, and then they start to appear in one another’s thoughts, able to instantly communicate and be virtually present with each other, or even take control of their bodies, from opposite sides of the planet. These eight people have essentially become a single entity, spread across multiple bodies. A man (Lost’s Naveen Andrews) is also there at their initial connection, and he serves as a sort of guide to help them navigate their newfound abilities as so-called sensates. Over the course of the season, they gradually encounter one another by uncovering the mystery of their communal bond and the greater outside forces at play.

With race and gender representation such a frequent talking point in media lately, Sense8 proudly wears its inclusive heart on its sleeve. Much more than mere tokenism in its diverse casting, the show frequently puts issues of inclusion and discrimination front and center. Transgender lesbian hacker Nomi’s story, for instance, begins during San Francisco’s Pride celebration, and involves her hateful mother who refuses to stop calling her Michael. One thematic way to interpret its mind-melding premise is that by crossing barriers of race, gender, culture, and sexuality, we are all made stronger, better.

The sensates’ power comes from more than just the sharing of literal skills like fighting, hacking, and chemistry, but also from mutual support and the sharing of perspective and experience. Just the knowledge that someone on the other side of the world, ostensibly completely different from you, has had experiences applicable to your own struggles can be a meaningful motivation in difficult times.

The Wachowskis’ playful sensibility and eye for cinematic action is strongly felt throughout the season. The cinematography is slick, and all of the fight scenes throughout the season are thrilling. There is also a charming degree of self-awareness on occasion, such as when Lito, the Mexican actor, films an absurdly over-the-top action scene that calls back very directly to The Matrix’s famous lobby sequence.

The series’ third and considerably less-hyped creator is J. Michael Straczynski, whose best known previous televisual opus is the underappreciated early 90s science fiction series Babylon 5. With its sweeping character and narrative arcs that were meticulously plotted out beforehand for five seasons, Babylon 5 was a decade ahead of its time, and failed to gain major traction with broadcast audiences before DVDs and then the internet allowed for convenient binge-watching. Straczynski’s fantastic sense of character and plot development serves as a perfect foil to the Wachowskis’ cinematic flair.

Straczynski’s fantastic sense of character and plot development serves as a perfect grounding foil to the Wachowskis’ cinematic flair.

In the wake of Lost, numerous science fiction television programs have tried and failed to recapture its magic by mistakenly putting all of their focus on plot twists and relentless cliffhangers. Although eager water cooler speculation about what was really going on comprised the meat of Lost fandom, it succeeded largely because of viewers’ investment in its compelling characters, often in spite of the loosely-constructed plot.

Sense8 is the most promising science fiction television series since Lost, and that is largely due to its commitment to placing its characters first. The season follows a more cinematic structure during its slower first half, really taking the time to introduce its players. By the time the action picks up in the second half, the audience is really invested in these characters.

The first part of the season can feel slow at times, inconsistent in tempo and tone, but that groundwork really pays off when the show’s premise clicks in at the end. After a season of hooking up all of these characters and building up a cinematic vocabulary for their power’s expression, the thrilling finale cuts loose and shows why this is such a perfect premise for television. Characters ping back and forth between locations, fluidly swapping in as the situation demands. At one point, two of the men get sidetracked by a conversation, so one of the women literally pops up between them in a moment of cartoon hilarity reminiscent of the Wachowskis’ underrated Speed Racer adaptation.

The second season will necessarily be very different than the first. This was a superhero origin story, and now they will be put to the test with much higher stakes. If Sense8 can maintain the ingenuity, momentum, and heart that it found by the end of its first season, then Netflix could have something really special on its hands.

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