Identity Politics, Sexuality, And A Plot That Doesn’t Care: Why Sense8 Is Netflix’s Most Radical Show
Netflix's new sci-fli show reminds us that people watch TV for all sorts of reasons; plot is just one of them.
This piece contains spoilers for season one of Sense8.
There is a dominant mode of thinking both in Hollywood and the wider culture that film and TV exist solely to tell stories. If a scene does not advance an overarching narrative in some way, then it’s deemed superfluous.
Sense8, the new sci-fi show from the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending) and J Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) has been critiqued along similar lines. “Discussing the plot is a chore,” according to Indiewire, while The Atlantic argues that it’d be much better if “the overarching story held attention”.
This line of thinking ignores a key truism about popular culture: people watch things for all sorts of reasons; plot is just one of them.
Sense8 is less interested in conforming to conventional notions of what a ‘good’ story looks like, and more interested in a no holds barred exploration of identity politics, sexuality and the new ways Netflix can help open up these ideas. And it just might be the streaming network’s most radical show.
The Wachowski Bait-and-Switch
The Wachowskis are masters of the high concept bait-and-switch. The Matrix lures you in with its slow motion, 360-degree fight scenes, but most of the movie is an allegorical critique of consumer capitalism. You buy a ticket to Cloud Atlas for the sci-fi action and to see Tom Hanks wearing wigs, but you stay for its cumulative revelations about human connection. In each case they draw you in with an eye-popping premise, and then use it to launch into the issues that they’re really interested in.
The premise of Sense8 is a simple one: Eight people living in different countries discover that they’re psychically connected “Sensates”. Daryl Hannah and Sayid from Lost pop up from time to time to remind them that a shadowy organisation is tracking them down.
The trailer positions it as a cutting edge sci-fi action show, emphasising how the characters psychically lend each other their skills as they battle their way through a mysterious story. But while there is plenty of narrative intrigue and lots of fighting, it mostly comes in short bursts. The bulk of the show is devoted to hours and hours (and hours) of exposition and subplots.
Every episode of Sense8 follows multiple characters in countries all over the world, as their emotional beats, and occasionally their stories, intersect. For twelve hours we jump from country to country, character to character, subplot to subplot, emotion to emotion. It feels like Cloud Atlas on crack.
In one subplot, a closeted Mexican actor enters a polygamous relationship of sorts, with his beard and his boyfriend. In another, a kickboxing South Korean business executive takes the fall for her family’s financial crimes. There are six more of these stories, each of which could stand alone as the set-up for an entire show.
The Sensates encompass a wide range of gender and sexual identities. If you had to identify one character as the show’s protagonist, it would be Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a Hacktivist and transgender woman. Her experience of the San Francisco Pride March takes up the bulk of the focus for the first couple of episodes.
In the second episode, Nomi records a video, passionately explaining why she’s marching. If storytelling is the dominant means by which you evaluate a show, then her monologue is an awkward, irrelevant indulgence. But how many shows not only have a transgender woman as a main character, but give her time and space to outline why she is proud to be who she is?
This ability to take time out from the dominant narrative is one of Netflix’s key strengths. On a streaming platform, issues like constructing narrative arcs consistently across individual episodes are less of a concern than on broadcast TV. There is room for what we’re watching to meander, provided there is good enough reason for us to let Netflix auto-play the next episode.
In Sense8, the reason to keep watching rarely has anything to do with its overarching story. Instead it is the subplots, character relationships and some truly bonkers sequences that are the most riveting. Two of these sequences are worth discussing in detail.
#1: The Psychic Orgy
In what I’m sure must be a first for TV, Sense8’s sixth episode features what can only be described as a psychic orgy. The characters abandon the baggage of their sexual identities to get it on, while Macy Gray sings in the background.
There is no narrative build-up to this event, and the characters never mention it again. It just happens. If a show’s fidelity to story is the sole criterion of how good it is, then this scene is obviously a self-indulgent failure.
So what is it doing there? Well for one thing, it’s ridiculously hot. But it also makes perfect sense when you realise that what primarily drives Sense8 is not a desire to tell a story, but to celebrate freedom. Everybody temporarily sheds their inhibitions to do what feels right in the moment; even the crew behind the cameras seem liberated.
Amusingly, one of the Sensates, a Chicago Cop, simultaneously works out in his uber macho police gymnasium while psychically linking into the orgy. The locker room has a proud tradition in television of being the site of barely suppressed erotic desire (MTV’s Teen Wolf being one recent example); Sense8 doesn’t hesitate to open the lid, hurling into the open what other shows bury in their subtext.
#2: The Birth Montage
A psychic orgy is not even the most ambitious of Sense8’s conceits. Eleven hours in, there is a ten-minute-long, wordless birth montage.
The Sensates gather to watch a classical concert. One by one, we watch in full glorious detail the exact moment each character was born.
There’s something about the all-consuming mode of bingeing that heightens the last few episodes of a series. If you’ve watched this show in a couple of extended blocks, then it’s right about now that you start to feel like you’ve known these characters for decades.
In this context, the birth montage feels like the ultimate statement about what both Sense8 is, and Netflix can be. All the characters unite, having overcome some obstacles, and not overcome others. But hey, the show seems to be saying, no big deal. Let’s spend some time reflecting. It feels like a celebration not only of life, but of a particularly open-minded attitude to it.
The entire show exists to get you to this one sequence. We watch as each character watches their own birth, and we remember something very easily forgotten in between work and Marvel movies and figuring out what’s for dinner: we’re not just experiencing life, but sharing it with everybody else.
This is why Sense8 is truly radical. You give it a couple of episodes to grind down your cynicism, and then overdose on ten straight hours of human empathy.
Sense8 is streaming on Netflix now.
Anders Furze is a Melbourne based writer and film critic at The Citizen. His writing on film and culture has been published in The Age, Screen Machine and Mubi Notebook. He tweets from @AndersFurze