On June 5th, Netflix unveiled Sense8, a new original series created by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) that has quickly drawn attention for its emphasis on character development and interpersonal relationships, despite the fact that it resides comfortably within the science fiction genre. Even though it has the action scenes associated with visual sci-fi, the story itself fits in with literary sci-fi. (And yes, this is intentional.) Its greatest strength lies in near-philosophical revelations about empathy and connection, which intertwines with a talented international cast and breathtaking location shooting.
The plot revolves around a “cluster” of eight individuals leading lives around the globe who become mentally and emotionally linked to one another when they are reborn as “sensates.” While their new abilities lead to unwanted attention from a shadowy company, learning who these characters are and watching them help each other out is the most exciting part of the series. The group consists of Bae Doona as Sun Bak, a Korean businesswoman by day and an underground kick-boxer by night whose world is shaken when she exposes corruption in her father’s company, Tina Desai as Kala Dendekar, an Indian woman who works for a major pharmaceutical company while retaining her Hindu faith – an interesting combination that informs much of her hesitation about her upcoming marriage, Tuppence Middleton as Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ living in London who grapples with her connection to her country and her past throughout the season, Miguel Ángel Silvestrea as Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican telenovela actor whose relationship with his boyfriend is a secret so as not to ruin his career, Max Riemelt as Wolfgang Bogdanow, a German locksmith engaged in organized crime, Aml Ameen as a bus driver living in Nairobi named Capheus who wishes to earn money to care for his sick mother, and Brian J. Smith as a Chicago-based police officer named Will Gorski who has issues revolving around an unsolved murder that occurred when he was a child.
As their connections grow, so do they, and it is really a joy to watch, but the show benefits the most from Nomi Marks, the final sensate. Nomi is a trans woman and hactivist living with her girlfriend Amanita in San Francisco. Her plotline incorporates her trans identity without reducing her to a stereotype, although the show makes no attempt to hide it, either: in the very first episode, a flashback to a Pride event reveals that Nomi has experienced transphobia within the LGBTQ+ community.
Netflix, of course, is no stranger to producing shows with queer and trans content. House of Cards‘s Frank Underwood is bisexual, and Orange is the New Black features many queer characters on the show, as well as a trans woman character named Sophia, who is played by trans rights activist Laverne Cox. Nomi Marks is also played by a trans woman – Jamie Clayton – which adds a wonderfully authentic layer to Nomi’s character. (It is worth noting here that Lana Wachowski is also a trans woman.) In a media landscape with little trans representation and few roles for trans actors, Nomi is an awesome step forward. She is smart, capable, in tune with her emotions, and emerges as a group leader throughout the season in ways I’m excited to see explored in season two.
The supporting women of Sense8, namely Nomi’s girlfriend Amanita (A.K.A. the most supportive girlfriend on the planet) and Daniela, a Mexican actor who tries to take things to the next level with her costar Lito only to discover that he is gay and living a very picturesque (yet very hidden) life with his boyfriend Hernando in Mexico City, help emphasize the decidedly queer tilt of the series. Amanita accepts what is happening to Nomi right away, and throughout the season, she helps Nomi assist the other sensates with their struggles. Daniela ends up living with Lito and Hernando, and the three make up one of the more queer relationships on the show – while Lito and Hernando retain their exclusive romantic and sexual relationship, the bond between the three borders on being romantically polyamorous. Amanita and Daniela form important support structures for Nomi and Lito while also conveying a real sense of personality.
It is worth mentioning that at the start of the series, the two sensates in committed relationships are Nomi and Lito. Their relationships with their partners are equal parts sexy, loving, trusting, and romantic. In a media environment where many queer characters either remain committed but chaste (i.e. Modern Family) or promiscuous and over-sexualized (i.e. Queer as Folk) it is nice to see a different perspective. (The two major heterosexual pairings, by contrast, build up slowly throughout the season.) Seeing love between queer people showcased in a detailed, yet normal way is an exciting thing for the television landscape. After all, one of the major takeaways from Sense8 is that love is extremely powerful and transcends all boundaries, whether those boundaries be one’s gender, sexual orientation, class, profession, nationality, etc.
Sense8 is certainly not a perfect show. Sometimes the writing is clunky, and the pacing can feel off. But there is quiet confidence to the show, centered on Nomi’s character, which makes it extremely engrossing and certainly worthy of your time. You will fall in love with the characters and rush through the season to see what happens in their individual plotlines and the ways that they interact with one another, which are sometimes exhilarating or moving, other times hilarious or awkward, and always thought-provoking. It’s an excellent original contribution to the science fiction genre. Give it a shot! All episodes are streaming over at Netflix.