Queer Quest: Sense8 Is Pretty Gr8

By Ashley R. Lierman

Continuing in my quest to insist that I do actually like things, this week I think it’s time to talk about Sense8. This is a good time for it in particular because a) I just recently finished finally watching the first season, and more importantly, b) because it was just announced this past week that the series has been renewed for a second season. I was glad to hear it, because it’s a fun piece of television I’ve been enjoying, and because it’s been doing some things I’d like to see more shows do, so it’s heartening that the response has been positive.

If you’re not familiar with Sense8, it’s a Netflix original SF series created, written, and produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, so if you hadn’t heard about it and you like SF at all, I’d like to imagine you’re paying more attention already. As a number of reviews have noted, it’s actually hard to explain even a little of what the show is about without spoiling things, but I’ll do my best: it follows eight strangers all over the world who find themselves gradually developing extrasensory powers, and also intimately linked to one another in a way they’re just beginning to understand. One of the most remarkable things about the series, right off the bat, is the way it makes use of its internationalism: scenes in each character’s setting are filmed on location in the appropriate city, with a different director attached to each location, rather than each episode. The approach gives each character and each place a particular look, feel, and tone, sometimes colliding as their paths intersect. This influence is felt as early as the lengthy title sequence, which focuses on footage and images from each of the countries in the show.

Just as notable, though, is how queer-friendly and queer-focused the series is. Not only does coming out on Netflix make a show more conducive to binge-watching (which at least I personally always appreciate), it also tends to open the door to more diverse and sexually frank content than one might usually see on network TV – as, for instance, Orange is the New Black has demonstrated. Sense8 clearly enjoys this freedom: one of its core group of characters, Nomi, is a transwoman (and better still, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton) and in a relationship with a woman, while the main storyline for another, Lito, revolves around his closeted sexuality and the complicated relationship that develops between Lito, his boyfriend, and the woman he’s been dating to deflect suspicion. Furthermore, according to Lana Wachowski, at least, all eight of the main characters are at least theoretically pansexual, regardless of how that may or may not play out on the screen. In any case, the show definitely offers representation of multiple kinds, and focuses in large part on Nomi, her relationship with her girlfriend Amanita, her identity, and her struggles with her unaccepting and abusive family. The autobiographical influence from Lana Wachowski can certainly be felt (and she’s said as much herself), but that’s the opposite of a problem, in my view; I’d at least rather see a show be a platform for a trans person to tell stories of her own experiences than be one for, say, a cis person to tell stories of how hard it is to be related to a trans person. For example. Hypothetically.

Anyway, I feel it’s worth noting, though, that in spite of its impressive global reach, the show’s weakest showing is on the issue of race. White characters frequently get more screentime, complexity of storyline, and attention than characters of color, and the characters of color seem to get hit with a lot of stereotypes in terms of how their storylines are developed – although in most cases the series walks that back to some degree. Kala, an Indian woman, is engaged to marry a man she’s not in love with, in a storyline that has all the trappings of a tired “arranged marriage” fallback – although the marriage is voluntary and a bit more complicated than that; Sun, a Korean businesswoman who is the show’s sole East Asian, is a martial artist, although her chosen sport is underground kickboxing and is unpacked in interesting ways as her main resistance to her repressive family situation; Capheus, a Kenyan matatu driver, is quickly wrapped up in organized crime and gang wars, although he’s a very gentle person himself who is only trying to get AIDS medication for his mother. It’s nice that the show continues to complicate matters around each of these tropes, but it would definitely nicer if it weren’t starting from stereotypical ground in the first place. Though the show has a fair number of Black characters, also, almost all are involved in some sort of criminal activity at some point, and there is a conspicuous lack of positive images of Black fathers, where white ones are often very prominent and treated very sentimentally.

There are definitely objections to be raised, and on these grounds the show may indeed not be for everyone, without even getting into criticisms of Lana Wachowski (and I am not going to get into them, sorry, do me a favor and Google this one, okay, we could be here all night). I know I spent a fair amount of the first season wondering crossly why I kept being expected to care about straight white people making eyes at each other when I could be checking in on Capheus, or Sun, or Nomi and Amanita. And the series has its flaws on the storytelling level, too: it can be slow-moving, silly, and over-the-top dramatic at times, like many another project of the Wachowskis’ we could name.

But here’s the thing: it’s fun. It’s completely, goofily in earnest; I don’t believe this series has a single ironic bone in its body, for good or ill. It has gorgeous visuals, fun action sequences, a sense of humor about itself, a gentleness of sensibility that’s sort of refreshing compared to a lot of the other big flagship shows even on Netflix. In a media culture in general and a genre in particular where everything seems to be trying to out-grim and out-gritty everything else most of the time, it feels good to watch a show that is just so sincerely here to have a good time. As welcome as its queer representation is, at times, Sense8‘s sheer enthusiasm is almost more so.

Plus, I mean, it’s really hard to argue with a series that includes both an eight-person multinational psychic singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”, and later a five-person multinational psychic orgy. I am not ashamed to tell you that is my idea of a quality television experience. …Well, okay, maybe a little bit about the first part.

At any rate, I’m glad to see Sense8 succeeding if only for the kind of LGBT+ content it’s been taking on, and I hope it continues to do so. I also hope that if it goes on long enough, it may be able to do better on some of the issues that have been pointed out. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility, certainly; I’d say there’s been improvement even over the course of the first season. If you want to try it for yourself, though, the episodes are still available on Netflix, and I’d recommend the experience. Even if only for the fun of it.

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