In the first book of his Politics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) claimed that man is by nature a political animal. By this, he meant that there is a basic impulse that drives men to connect with their fellow men. Over the centuries, the word connection has taken on a more complex meaning. Especially in the wake of the Digital Revolution. The Internet has become a place of connective intelligence: an ever-evolving pool of collective knowledge. While social media, with its power to bring people together, has redefined human bonds. In the blink of an eye, a single person has gained the ability to connect to an online community of diverse people from all over the world. As a result, the human capacity to feel empathy has also adapted to the new scenario. And it is exactly human connectedness that is at the heart of Netflix‘s show Sense8.
Sense8 (a pun between the word sensate and the number of main characters) is a sci-fi drama created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski along with J. Michael Straczynski. The Wachowskis earned international acclaim for creating The Matrix film series (1999-2003). They also produced and wrote the screenplay of James McTeigue‘s V for Vendetta (2005). Sense8 is the first project to mark the filmmaking duo’s migration to television. On the other hand, Straczynski created the TV Show Babylon 5 (1993) and wrote the screenplay of Clint Eastwood‘s Changeling (2008). He is also a well-known comic book writer. Into the bargain, he wrote several issues of Marvel Comics‘ The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Thor, as well as some of DC Comics‘ Superman, Wonder Woman, and Before Watchmen.
“I am also a We”
Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers from around the world. All of them with diverse social, cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, with different sexual orientations and religious beliefs. Suddenly, the eight find out that they belong to another human species called “Homo sensorium”. Indeed, they all form a cluster that is mentally and emotionally linked. They are able to communicate with each other, sense each other’s emotions and thoughts, and share their knowledge, languages, and unique skills. They will have to join forces and fight against a scientific organization, who wants to hunt them down.
This diverse group of strangers includes Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman blogger and hacktivist from San Francisco; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a locksmith by day and safecracker by night from Berlin; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a famous closeted gay actor from Mexico City; Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago police officer; Sun (Bae Doona), a businesswoman and martial arts expert from Seul; Kala (Tina Desai), a pharmaceutical chemist and devout Hindu from Mumbai; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ now living in London. And finally, Capheus (Aml Ameen/Toby Onwumere in season two), a skilled driver of matatus, or public minibuses, who comes from Nairobi and is nicknamed “Van Damme” due to his obsession with the movies of the famous Belgian actor.
The end result is a complex, multi-layered show filled with pure Wachowski-style fight choreography. Sense8 can be compared to Lost (2004) for its way of showing characters with different life paths (fun fact: the cast also features Naveen Andrews, one of the main actors of Lost) and to The OA (2016) for some of the themes it deals with.
A show told on a global scale
Sense8 breaks away from traditional television production. It is a major production, shot entirely on location in many countries around the world. To be specific, filming took place in nine cities in eight countries for the first season and sixteen cities in eleven countries for the second season. Also, the production hired local actors and crew members in order to maintain an even more authentic sense of reality. And on top of that, some scenes were shot in front of a real crowd during major events such as the Fourth of July celebration in Chicago or the 20th Gay Pride Parade in São Paulo. Confirming its use of locations as an integral part of the tale, Sense8 won a Location Managers Guild International Award for Outstanding Locations in a Contemporary Television Series.
To find out more about the behind-the-scenes and making of the show, right after the debut of the first season Netflix released a 25-minute documentary titled Sense8: Creating the World.
“Labels are the opposite of understanding”
The Wachowskis, both trans women, have poured a lot of their personal background into the show. Mainly in the transgender character Nomi, who is also played by the transgender actress Jamie Clayton. Indeed, Sense8 garnered positive reviews for its portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community and related issues. It also shows how some labels and normalized sexual patterns – for example, toxic masculinity or the criminalization of physical pleasure and sexual freedom – can dictate daily life and how, in a subtle way, they influence visual cultures. And it does so through a groundbreaking enactment of the body and sexual intercourse. Indeed, the representation of sex in Sense8 serves as a political vehicle through which to denounce discrimination, sexism, and fear and to celebrate freedom beyond censorship and social conventions.
Because, as the character of Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) says: “The eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, and prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see.”
Our differences are what make us equal
“We had a late-night conversation about the ways technology simultaneously unites and divides us, and out of that paradox Sense8 was born”, said the Wachowski sisters. At its core, Sense8 is all about human bonds in their broadest sense. The show attempts to explore fundamental themes about human identity, but also about the combination of religion and science, and racial politics. All through the storylines of the eight protagonists. In a way, Sense8 echoes some of the issues the Wachowskis had already examined in their previous works. Especially in the movie Cloud Atlas (2012), co-directed with Tom Tykwer. Sense8 skillfully uses stereotypes for the purpose of breaking them. It strives to appeal to viewers’ feelings, making them form critical thoughts on the mentioned topics. Proving this, in just two seasons the show has been able to create its own philosophy.
The show draws attention to what it means to be sensed, how our senses and emotions both define reality and other people, and how those define us. To confirm this, Sense8 actually focuses more on the emotions and perspectives of each character rather than on the plot. In the end, the driving force of the show is human diversity. And its ultimate message is to see diversity and uniqueness as something that unites all people. Because it’s only when we leave our barriers behind and step outside of ourselves to see the other, that we realize that, in the end, we are not alone.
Netflix canceled Sense8 after its second season due to production costs being too high. However, after fans from around the world created online petitions and clamored for the series to continue using the hashtag #RenewSense8, Netflix announced the release of a two-hour special finale. But that’s not it. Some Sense8 cast members will team up again with Lana Wachowski in the fourth Matrix movie, scheduled to be released in December 2021.