There’s a sequence in the second episode of Sense8, the latest unmitigated fiasco to be delivered by Lana and Andy Wachowski (here paired with Babylon 5 mainstay J. Michael Straczynski), which quickly summarizes the now seemingly terminal atonality of the Wachowskis’ post-Matrix oeuvre. A well-meaning cop, Will (Brian J. Smith), sits down in a cop bar with his retired-cop father (Joe Pantoliano), who proceeds to throw his full colostomy bag on the table and jokingly asks him to empty it for him. Will is prepared to storm out before his father remits, but not before commenting on his inability to take a joke. As written by the Wachowskis and Straczynski, Will is a righteous, humble, and, yes, humorless hero cop, and like the series that he at least partially leads, he’s meant to come off as serious as a heart attack. Indeed, Sense8 sports the timbre of a political manifesto that preaches hope, optimism, and connection with militant conviction, and in the series itself, this belief takes on the tone of fanatical religious devotion.
The series flips between eight main characters, each one defined by the region in which they live – London, Chicago, San Francisco, Nairobi, Mexico City, Mumbai, Berlin, and Seoul. Each story is matched with a familiar sociopolitical harangue, from police violence to drug addiction to homophobia, and the creators are very careful to make sure that there’s a clear delineation between the evil people and the good people, avoiding personal complexity in every character with a thoroughness that is borderline impressive. Nomi (Jamie Clayton), for instance, is a trans woman with ample intelligence and an unshakable fearlessness, and the scripts position her as a victim of a cruel world, whether in the form of her bigoted parents or a friend of her girlfriend’s who gives her a verbal lashing for … some reason. Like so many other Wachowski works, the overarching theme of Sense8 is extraordinary humanists being held or hunted down by a dark world of cynics and criminals who have a sadistic taste for control and suffering.
A similar series of events befalls Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a pot-smoking, pill-popping DJ living in London, who meets a man who convinces her to give up drugs and reach out for people, only to then watch her boyfriend put a gun to his temple and steal his money. Like Nomi, Riley soon begins finding herself suddenly transported to another part of the globe, or receiving items and help from other super-beings who “believe” in a destiny foretold by Angel (Daryl Hannah) and spread across the world by a mysterious figure (Naveen Andrews). The series charts not only the realization of Angel’s true purpose, but also her control over this ability to switch places with other super-beings whenever needed, mastering an ideology that takes the place of the real global effort and tremendous labor that would be needed to take on the issues that these characters face.
The Wachowskis and Straczynski flippantly suggest that most global issues could be quickly dealt with via a doctrine of good vibes. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as the wild invention of the science fiction premise that Sense8 exists in, if the tone wasn’t so deathly self-serious, overtly sentimental, and earnest to a fault; that the series isn’t particularly creative or original beyond the basic conceit is another looming problem in both the narrative and the look of the series. You can’t exactly blame the writers, however, as they must tend to eight storylines that grow increasingly convoluted with each new episode. There are moments where one genuinely wonders if the Wachowskis and Straczynski created this on a dare to see if they could balance as many stories as Game of Thrones. Between Kala’s (Tina Desai) fight to get out of an arranged marriage, Sun’s (Bae Doona) attempt to balance life as a corporate head and a gifted martial artist, and a Nairobi militia’s grudge against Capheus (Aml Ameen), a local bus driver, there’s already too much story for the creators to balance convincingly, and I haven’t even gotten around to Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a closeted homosexual actor who must keep up a relationship with a female co-star for appearances.
Sadly, this is all par for the course in the land of the Wachowskis in the years following The Matrix, with the notable exception of the visually dazzling Speed Racer. This year’s Jupiter Ascending dealt in a similar thick-as-a-brick, largely dull narrative that rendered any imaginative elements of the plot or thematic structure moot, but even that offered occasional visual thrills, such as Channing Tatum’s not-werewolf running on air. Sense8 cuts down vastly on the imagistic invention while relying on a similarly vague overarching plot as Jupiter Ascending, which, in this case, barely gets any traction within the first three episodes. What’s left is a whole lot of forced urgency and unrelenting preaching in the service of a kind of origins story, bringing together a team of eight super-beings who might just be able to make the world a utopia through their devotion. It’s a crass, unthinking, and fatally nostalgic conception, tossed at the audience like Will’s father’s colostomy bag and sold as a science fiction fantasia, despite the fact that Sense8 is nearly as shallowly sanctimonious as a Tyler Perry film.
Rating: ★ Poor — A waste of time