Almost as soon as series two of Sense8 dropped on to Netflix on May 5, eager fans were posting speculation about when series three would be ready for viewing, such is the massive global appeal of this television phenomenon.
And a phenomenon it is proving to be – Sense8 represents something new in global televisual culture, both in terms of the platform it uses and in content. The global distribution enabled by Netflix is a perfect fit for the series’ message on transnational connections.
As the Sense8 characters appear in each other’s lives when called upon, regardless of geography, they appear simultaneously in our homes whether we are viewers watching in the locations shared by the characters – India, South Korea, Kenya, Mexico, the US, Germany, Britain, Iceland – or any of the other territories the series was released in.
Sense8 was created by transgender sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski – Lana and Lilly co-directed most of series one (2015) while Lana took over the task for series two (2017). And “trans” is the key word in any attempt to summarise the series – interactions are characterised by the crossing of national, gender and sexual borders.
The Sensates are a cluster of eight people who share a birth date of August 8 (the eighth month), and members of a more highly evolved species known as Homo sensorium. They share a psychic and empathetic connection with each other and appear in each other’s lives when their particular skills are needed.
The sensate characters are Sun (Donna Bae), a businesswoman from Seoul with extraordinary fighting skills, and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a streetwise Berliner born into a gangster dynasty, who shares an intense attraction with the Mumbai resident Kala, a chemist (Tina Desai). Will (Brian J Smith) is a Chicago cop in love with Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a DJ from Reykjavik, while Capheus (Toby Onwumere) is a Nairobi bus driver turned political activist, known affectionately as Van Damme for his love of the Belgian action star. Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender woman and master computer hacktivist living in San Francisco who is in a relationship with Amanita (Freema Agyeman), a non-sensate. Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a B-movie actor from Mexico City, also in a relationship with a non-sensate, Hernando (Alfonso Herrera). And in a delicious sci-fi conceit, the cluster has been brought into being by Angelica, played by Daryl Hannah.
These seemingly disparate characters transcend their national and social identity labels and come together to form a new family. They protect each other against their enemies – principally those who belong to a shady and powerful organisation known as BPO (Biologic Preservation Organisation), a name that calls to mind Nazi-era eugenics. A man known as Whispers is the face of BPO and seeks to hunt the cluster down and destroy them, fearful of the potential in their difference as a distinct species.
The sensates are a better version of us – they present a challenge to individualism, self-interest and narrow tribalism. The eight care deeply about each other with an empathy born of the fact that they can literally inhabit their co-sensates’ spaces, walk in each other’s shoes and even become them when the need arises. Concepts of self and other dissolve as the boundaries between them disappear.
The power and beauty of this lies in the fact that this utopian vision of what we can be is not reserved for the series’ characters alone. Sense8 has a visceral and intense empathetic televisual style that fosters these connections. In one sequence, Sun is hung by the neck as hit men hired by her treacherous brother attempt to murder her. As she struggles for breath, the other members of her cluster simultaneously experience the strangling and fight for their lives. Watching, I found myself entirely immersed, struggling to breathe, momentarily sharing the experience.
We also celebrate with the characters – and in these celebrations we can find the root of the series’ success. One of the storylines in season two features the consequences of Lito’s coming out. As he is shunned by the domestic film industry, unable to accommodate the idea of a gay action hero, he is invited to be guest of honour at São Paulo’s LGBT Pride event. His heartfelt speech (that has over a million hits on YouTube) is followed by the call to his audience: “Let’s party”. The extended scenes that ensue invite us to join with the revellers and the sensates, regardless of our sexual and gender identities.
Progressives have more fun
Sense8 is wonderfully queer in its structure, sense and characters. It offers a queer invitation to the world to join the party, with a message that progressives have more fun. It is both remarkable and praiseworthy that the series has been released in countries with anti-LGBT policies, such as Russia, Thailand, The United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan.
The radical potential of our spectator-empathy is fully realised by the Wachowskis in Sense8 as they reject US mainstream identificatory strategies. All the characters share screen time and value regardless of skin tone, gender, sexuality, or nationality. This responds to a deep need among audiences all over the world to find transnational connections and community in times of national isolationism, sexual conservatism, homophobia and transphobia.
Fans become like the Sense8 characters and connect across space through streaming and social media platforms. In this way, they forge a virtual community that stands against narrow populist nationalism and for a new globalism built on solidarity, empathy and progressive gender and sexual politics.