[This is a review of Sense8 season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Wachowskis' new Netflix series certainly isn't your average television show. A sprawling sci-fi ensemble concerning eight disparate strangers the world over who, after the suicide of a mysterious woman named Angel (Daryl Hannah), begin to experience a shared consciousness. There's also some sort of good versus evil plot simmering way down beneath the pseudo-metaphysical surface of the otherwise nebulous storyline that concerns Naveen Andrews (Lost) and a bearded fellow who travels with heavily armed escorts. In other words, Sense8 carries the narrative complexity of Cloud Atlas to a format that (considering it gives the series 12 hours to tell its complex tale of identity across cultures) requires a lot of world building and explanation to not only get its point across, but to simply get the wheels on the massive sci-fi vehicle turning.
The only problem is, in the series premiere, 'Limbic Resonance,' the audience gets none of the necessary explanation or sense of forward progression. Instead, we are treated to a lot of contextually flaccid backstory, told through some ridiculously stilted dialogue that doesn't just stall the development of what is clearly a wildly ambitious narrative in its first hour; it reduces nearly every character to a thin approximation of a human being. And for a series that wants to explore the notion of identity, serving up eight uninteresting ciphers during the introductory period is no way to get things started.
In the first hour, Sense8 jumps back and forth between its disparate characters, all of whom are, at one point or another, found engaging in some light interpersonal dialogue and the same sort of metaphysical ponderings we've come to expect from the Wachowskis. While the prosaic philosophical ramblings of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus were one of the many things to love about the siblings' breakthrough 1999 hit The Matrix, the same jabber became exponentially less charming with each subsequent film – like The Matrix sequels, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and, most recently, Jupiter AscendingJupiter Ascending. That makes for some ponderous moments early on and more than a few bad first impressions with the ensemble cast of characters.
So, just who are these eight strangers who suddenly find they are sharing a single consciousness? Well, that's a good question, because, after the premiere, all we really know is what they do, not who they are. In the first hour, the most prominent of the eight are Scandinavian DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton), sympathetic Chicago cop Will (Brian J. Smith), German safecracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), and trans activist Nomi (Jamie Clayton). The rest, like Korean business exec Sun (Bae Doona), Indian pharmacist and soon-to-be bride Kala (Tina Desai), telenovela star Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), and Nairobi bus driver Capheus (Aml Ameen), are sketched with much attention to detail.
As mentioned before, Sense8 is a huge show, so it is reasonable to assume that a complete exploration of the characters will take some time – two or three episodes, to be sure – so patience is a virtue here. But no amount of patience is going to forgive the broad strokes with which these four characters (Riley, Will, Nomi, and Wolfgang) are initially painted. Riley and Wolfgang manage to be the most interesting, since there's no overt attempt at messaging in either one of their stories. The other two, Will and Nomi, however, have their characterizations put on hold in favor of some on-point and somewhat clumsy social commentary.
The thing is, all the messaging would actually be a nice accompaniment to many of these characters' stories, if there were more story and more character there to pin it on. Unfortunately, the messaging isn't served up as character enhancement; it's given as the primary identifier of who these characters are.
In a way, it's like Sense8 is working backwards, telling us to care about what the series has to say before giving us a reason to do so. We can assume a certain level of universality in terms of the human experience, but without the sensation that these are living, breathing characters, such an experience feels paper-thin. What’s more, in the first hour, only Will and Riley have a face-to-face meeting. Now, granted, it's in a terrifically edited sequence that jumps from London to Chicago to London again, switching character perspectives the entire time, but even this early on, it's apparent how desperately these individuals need to find some concrete connection with one another.
Now, all this discussion about character and dialogue deficiencies isn't to say the Wachowskis don't still have the same meticulous eye when it comes to visuals, they do; it's just that here, the visuals aren't as eye popping or sumptuous as they have been in the past. This is seemingly an effort to set a more realistic foundation on which the extraordinary can happen. Even so, the sweeping aerial cinematography of the various cityscapes looks fantastic, and the ever-changing locales makes for the most compelling argument to continue watching after the first hour.
With so much going on, and with a story that is troublingly diffuse, Sense8 is clearly built for the binge method of television viewing. 'Limbic Resonance' doesn't so much end as gently waft, like a thin puff of smoke, into the next episode. As with everything the Wachowskis have done, there's tremendous potential here. But after a less-than-stellar first hour, one simply has to wonder how far down the rabbit hole you'll have to go in order to find it.
All 12 episodes of Sense8 are available now on Netflix.
Photos: Murray Close/Netflix