Review: Binging Sense8

By Rachel MacFarland

I’m trying something different for this book review, in that there’s no book. 

Recently, I swept through the short-lived Netflix series, Sense8, written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (sisters, both trans women) and J. Michael Straczynski. My experience of the show somewhat resembled reading a book—more so than any other TV watching I’ve done (I don’t have Netflix, so this experience was something of a fluke). Networks like Netflix are built for Binge; rather than faithfully taking your seat for whatever your show and its network-allotted time, you can take to the couch and watch an entire series in a matter of days. This concept—an entire entity of story, readily available—is also known as a book. So when Sense8 was dropping cliffhangers at the end of their episodes, I simply kept watching (next episode in 6…5…4…) until the show hit a lull, and then I dipped out until next time. No bookmark required, because Netflix remembers.

Now, I mentioned that the Wachowskis are sisters and trans women because, for one, this is still fairly new territory: the normalization of transgender people, and second—one of the show’s main characters is a trans woman, an overlap that lends itself to writer/character authenticity. As a side note, this is the first narrative I’ve sincerely engaged in that was created by and largely pivots on the experience of a trans woman—not as some social deviant that exists only outside the realm of “normal” society, but as a regular human. And like all “firsts,” this has an element of thrill. The humorous irony is that, like the other seven main characters, she’s not actually a regular human. 

Slowly, the eight characters of Sense8—spread around the globe, all living in large cities (Mumbai, Seoul, Mexico City, to name a few)—start to recognize that they’re all connected, empathetically, telepathically. If one person is in pain, they all feel it; they function as a sort of echo chamber of experience, even as they each have their individual lives and emotions. Eventually, they learn to utilize the advantages of their connectivity, while still actively seeking answers to their condition. All together, they form what is known as a cluster, and are considered a species of human apart from homo sapiens. Of course, because they are different, they are Other, and thus the target of an evil mad scientist, Whispers, who is affiliated with a company known as BPO (Biologic Preservation Organization). The show functions as a hot-pursuit, cat-and-mouse chase between the cluster and Whispers, all while juggling the individual plots of their other versions of life, the lives they were living before they discovered they were more than human. And none of them were living any sort of life you’d call “ho-hum.” There’s a closeted gay action-film star in Mexico, a safe-cracking thief in Berlin, and a trans woman computer hacker in San Francisco. And that’s only three characters, out of the eight total.      

It is my general contention (always debatable) that as long as a narrative has solid characters, every other aspect of that narrative—plot, setting, timeline, conflict—is secondary; if the protagonist is worthy, we’re willing to follow them wherever they lead. And Sense8 has eight such characters. Eight! All of them incredibly fleshed out, as the writer-vernacular goes, but no lie—these people are all fleshy-gorgeous on the outside too, and choreographed to truly stun when they’re naked, all together. To be sure, there is no shortage of sex and violence. But in no way does viewer engagement hinge on these two rather easy narrative devices. There is real substance here. More than once, a crescendo of emotion and character dialogue and/or soliloquy brought me to tears. Not only is the writing wonderful, but the cinematography is glorious—this is indeed one world-romping, divinely attractive piece of television, with a huge heart.

It romped itself out of Netflix’s budget, though, cancelled after only two seasons. To satiate viewers (who would have been left dangling on a Season 2 cliffhanger ending), they did manage to work out a deal to film a two-and-a-half-hour finale to the series. Naturally, this means a lot of loose ends left loose and some jumps at warp speed to condense a full season into a few hours, but for the most part, the writers still managed to create a satisfying ending, one that doesn’t compromise heart for the sake of “reality.” So—for all the millions and millions of dollars and airplane tickets and sexy actors and big big guns, TV has finally proven that it, too, can bare the thrill and heart of a single book. 

This is cheeky, maybe, bordering on full snobbery. I don’t hate TV, not at all. Do I believe it’s gone berserk? Yes. But part of the joy of various media/mediums is the space that opens between those mediums. I appreciate TV more, as an art form, because Sense8 is masterful storytelling. And such mastery also heightens my appreciation of books, because the elements of Sense8 that struck me as masterful are the elements that I am accustomed to finding in books; seeing those elements in another form is thrilling.

Anyway, to close, I’ll echo Abbie Hoffman when he titled a book Steal this Book: Binge this Show. It’s a worthy read.  

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

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