Spoiler alert: There is absolutely no way to talk about "Sense8" in all its queer glory without disclosing major spoilers. And that's largely because no one has any idea WTF is going on with this Netflix original for the first half of the season. "Sense8"—from trans filmmaker Lana Wachowski and her brother Andy, of "The Matrix" fame—is really one of the first pieces of media that seems site-specific to Netflix as a context. By that I mean that it's a bit like watching eight different films in different tabs, switching back and forth between different directors. Mostly, the unevenly paced, episodes of varying lengths scream for binge-watching. And that's really the only way the cryptic, often-nonlinear narrative is legible.
Each storyline loosely follows the tropes of an established genre: the escandalo-and-glamour-filled telenovela; the Bollywood heroine bursting into song and dance as she vacillates over an uncertain impending marriage; the Korean martial arts/revenge noir; the gritty cops-and-robbers drama of Chicagoland; the European diamond heist. Et cetera, et cetera. But the characters who populate these formulaic scenarios are anything but stereotypes. Their identities aren't presented as illustrations of their respective cultural contexts, but as nuanced foils to demonstrate the struggle the individual encounters based on different sets of circumstances, societal expectations, and socioeconomic/political factors outside their control. It's one of the best treatments of identity politics I've seen.
The eight major characters each live in different, insanely photogenic global cities and unlike the common practice of a few aerial establishing shots of a skyline followed by tightly cropped scenes shot in Toronto or Los Angeles, "Sense8" is almost all filmed on location. From gritty high-speed car chases under the Chicago L—or atop a gridlocked Nairobi freeway—to luscious, vibrant cinematography in Iceland and Mumbai, the series is refreshingly green-screen-free. It's a level of detail that makes the jumps much more jarring—from an idyllic San Francisco park to a Kenyan slum, for example—and adds a layer of realism to an otherwise wacky premise.
In one scene, Nomi, a trans woman played by Jamie Clayton, tells a gut-wrenching story of childhood trauma and redemption to Lito, a closeted gay man played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre, and inspires him to come to terms with his sexuality to win back the love of his life. They're sitting on a bench at the Diego Rivera-designed Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City. It's such a singular, idiosyncratic location that the scene couldn't have happened anywhere else. Suspension of disbelief comes much more easily when contemplating a real place, and I actually realized I was crying—something I can't remember doing during another film. And really, "Sense8" is an elaborate morality play about empathy.
There's logic to its disjointed structure—almost any viewer can easily find one character or subplot to relate to. When the barriers between those plot lines break down (spoiler alert: all the characters are psychically linked) I found myself deeply invested in the lives of Eastern European gangsters and—more shockingly—an American cop. The show does a fantastic job of addressing the apparent contradictions of how we empathize with these characters. In one scene, Capheus, an improbably optimistic resident of a Nairobi slum played by Aml Ameen, "visits" moody Icelandic DJ Riley, played by Tuppence Middleton, while she's sulking on a flight from London to Reykjavik. He's wide-eyed with excitement at the prospect of being on an airplane and remarks how lucky she is to fly. She replies, "I'm privileged, not lucky." Later, her traumatic past is revealed and I felt a sickly pang of guilt for being irritated by her self-absorption.
That irritation is sometimes hard to shake. The majority of conflict in Capheus' storyline revolves around a lack of access to medication for his mother, who is critically ill with AIDS. Kala, another telepathically linked character played by Tina Desai, happens to be a scientist for a pharmaceutical company in Mumbai. Most of her plot line revolves around contemplating a marriage to the company's manager. Likewise, Sun, played by Bae Doona, is the CFO of a pharmaceutical corporation in Seoul. UH, if you had an empathic psychic link to someone who was so desperate for AIDS medication that they were risking their lives every day to secure it, and you happened to have unlimited access to pharmaceuticals, wouldn't you somehow help out your psychic twin??!!
About a quarter of the way through "Sense8," I thought I had finally figured out what this show was about: coming together as a species to overcome HIV. Within the first half-hour of the first episode, Nomi attends a cripplingly sad performance about AIDS in the '80s in San Francisco when she's interrupted by a telepathic vision. Almost all of the characters in "Sense8" are either queer, work in the pharmaceutical industry, or live in cities where the HIV epidemic is growing. It seemed to be proposing that their capacity for empathy and working together as a hive mind was an evolutionary response to the crisis—there's a popular theory among secular humanists that compassion and communication are traits social species evolved as a survival mechanism.
So it's disappointing when the show is revealed to be "just" another live-action comic-book conspiracy series a la "Heroes" or that awful film "Jumper." Their abilities aren't the end goal of the plot, but the starting premise. Sorry to burst that bubble. But god, it's done so well. And so queer. One of the first scenes involves Nomi getting fucked with a strap-on by her girlfriend Amanita, played by Freema Agyeman of "Doctor Who" fame. And thankfully, "Sense8" doesn't take itself too seriously. It's peppered with references to the campiness of other Wachowski works and postmodern parodies of stale movie tropes.
In one of the many scenes that literally made me cheer at the screen and tear up, Amanita and other queer people of color lead a crazy rescue operation to break a sedated Nomi out of a hospital where she's being held against her will for an invasive brain surgery—in part by the consent of her awful mother who refers to her as "Michael" and believes she's mentally ill. While this is going on, the other linked characters break into a surprisingly moving, worldwide rendition of the 1992 4 Non Blondes hit 'What's Up?' It's so fitting for this show. When Nomi wakes up in Amanita's lap, she's disoriented and confesses that she can't get the song out of her head. Without missing a beat, Amanita replies, "4 Non Blondes? It's the perfect soundtrack to a lobotomy."
Humor—and plenty of hot sex scenes—totally redeem what's revealed to be the surprisingly basic premise of "Sense8." Just watch it. There's no way to describe this show in one article. "The Wire" starring a potentially hallucinating Chicago cop? Korean "Orange is the New Black"? A steamy Mexican "Will & Grace"? All of the above. But better. After all, "This world was made up of this brotherhood of man, for whatever that means." But seriously, what is going on?
Created by Lana and Andy Wachowski, currently streaming via Netflix
*Editor's Note: Writer Michael Farley requested that we remove the word "schizophrenic" from the headline and the piece itself due to its insensitivity. Using "schizophrenic" in this context is all too common in art reviews and perpetuates very particular stereotypes about mental illness that don't necessarily reflect the reality of the illness and perpetuate stigmas surrounding said illness.