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Review: Sense8
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jducoeur
The thing about streaming series is that you get to watch them at your own pace, without the pressure of, "OMG, my DVR is about to explode!" So it's taken me a while to get around to Netflix' recent series Sense8. I kind of regret that, because I would have started talking it up sooner if I'd realized how good it was.

Sense8 is written by JMS (of Babylon 5) and the Wachowshi brothers (of The Matrix). So I went into it with a nervous concern of, "this might be the most bombastic thing ever written". The reality is quite the opposite: this is by far the most *human* thing I've seen from any of them, possibly JMS' best writing to date. It isn't big, loud and special-effects-laden; instead, it is very much about normal people dealing with human (if dramatic) concerns, who are finding that their lives have just changed in a rather weird way.

At its heart, Sense8 is a deep exploration of telepathy -- a topic often covered in written science fiction over the years, but rarely done well in the visual media. The premise is straightforward: these 8 people, scattered around the world, are beginning to find themselves as mentally linked. They can talk to each other; moreover, they begin to find that they can share skills with each other. It's a lot more mundane than spaceships and monsters, but the story shows just how powerful it can be.

The series is the most diverse I've ever seen -- so much so that it has to have been quite deliberate. Our protagonists, in a nutshell, are:
  • The Icelandic musician, living in London to try to forget her past.

  • The Nigerian bus driver, whose focus on earning enough money to keep his mother healthy is going to make him some dangerous friends.

  • The lesbian hacker from San Francisco. (In pretty much the only solidly-healthy relationship in the story.)

  • The East German safecracker, about to make a big and risky score.

  • The Indian bride-to-be, whose future would look perfect if she actually loved her prospective groom.

  • The Chicago cop. (Because there had to be one generic whitebread guy, but he is no more the "lead" than anybody else.)

  • The macho latin movie star, closeted from the entire world (especially himself), who accidentally finds himself in a sweetly odd poly relationship.

  • And my personal favorite: the tightly-wound South Korean businesswoman, with her own distinctive mode of blowing off steam, whose family problems are about to explode.
Oh, and one of those characters is trans, but the series doesn't even bother to mention that until halfway though. There's something refreshingly modern about that simply being a background detail.

Each character is the center of their own story, and Season 1 is mainly telling those stories, as they slowly weave together with each other. It's quite faithful to its premise, though: while the protagonists are gradually accepting the reality of this link, and figuring out how to help each other with it, they stay quite separate -- only two of them even meet physically during Season 1. So each character gets their own story, each a sort of movie unto itself, with the rest as their friends, associates and helpers as they do so.

Of course, there is also an Evil Shadowy Conspiracy that is out to get them (this *is* a modern science fiction story, after all), and interestingly, the two American characters don't really have much plot aside from it -- there may be a statement about the American media there. But it's more a lurking presence in the first season, driving a bit of plot but not really defining the story.

There are no obvious special effects here, but you have to pay *close* attention as the camera dances back and forth between characters and stories. The series doesn't bother with a great deal of expository dialog; it assumes that the viewer is smart enough to keep up with what's going on. (Instead of plot exposition, we get a fair amount of heart-to-heart emotional discussion, as each of our heroes tries to help the others grapple with their problems.) It starts pretty slow, and the first couple of episodes are difficult going as you try to figure out what the hell is going on, but by its midpoint the season is *rocketing* along -- it starts getting hard not to binge through the rest of it as the plots begin to climax.

Note that, being an unrated series on Netflix, there's a fair amount of violence -- not terribly gory, but it's a significant undercurrent to several of these plots. There's also a moderate amount of explicit (and given these characters, mostly gay) sex: not terribly gratuitous, but it's important to some of these characters and the story doesn't shy away from it. The mood is often dark, but nicely cut with some very funny subplots.

Overall, highly recommended -- possibly the best TV show I've watched in the past year. Particularly recommended to fans of Orphan Black, which is the closest analogue I can think of in flavor. If you've got Netflix, check it out, and give it three episodes to get the hang of it...
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One point on the people behind the show. The Wachowskis haven't been brothers for some years now, since Lana went public with her transition in 2012.

Ahhh -- fascinating. I didn't know that, and it likely helps explain the show's unusually reasonable, un-sensationalized portrayal of LGBT characters and situations...

Going back and re-watching the first episode, there's a LOT of stuff I missed or mis-interpreted the first time around. (For instance, in almost her first shot, the trans character is shown injecting themself with hormones, though I didn't realize at the time what the injection was.

Have you watched the making of featurette? There's tons of amazing stuff in there about the stagecraft that went into making the show, including the part where they brought all 8 principals to film all of their scenes together and with each other.

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