NPR logo 'Sense8' Is Getting A Second Season — Now What?

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'Sense8' Is Getting A Second Season — Now What?

Daryl Hannah in the Netflix series Sense8. i

Daryl Hannah in the Netflix series Sense8. Murray Close hide caption

toggle caption Murray Close
Daryl Hannah in the Netflix series Sense8.

Daryl Hannah in the Netflix series Sense8.

Murray Close

Fans of Netflix's world-spanning science-fiction/action soap opera Sense8 have experienced a long, tense wait for renewal in recent weeks. While Netflix series like Daredevil, Bloodline and House Of Cards got their next-season notices back in March or April, and the second season of Grace And Frankie was finally announced in May, Netflix drew out the tension over Sense8 for months, sparking widespread speculation about what was holding up the announcement. Behind-the-scenes dickering over the content or cost of the expensive, ambitious series? A wait to see whether the show's creators — The Matrix writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski — would get a boost from the June home-video release of the Wachowskis' most recent film, Jupiter Ascending? Were the Netflix brass watching how the online community for the show built over time, and waiting to see whether the cultish fans could finally drive viewership to an acceptable level?

When the renewal notice for the show finally came Saturday — via a single tweet with a video of the primary cast members offering variants on "Happy birthday" — it suggested an additional line of reasoning that doesn't necessarily rule out any of the others. Sense8 centers on eight people, scattered around the world, who are "reborn" as a "sensate cluster" — a group of people who can psychically experience each other's mental states, share useful skills and have mental conversations thousands of miles apart. Part of the show's lore says that all eight sensates took their first breath at exactly the same time, because they share the same birthday: August 8, 1988, or 8/8/88. The renewal notice came on 8/8 of this year, which explains the birthday greetings from the cast. It's possible Netflix was just waiting for this auspicious date to roll around, but it does seem like a flimsy sort of publicity stunt. (Especially when sticking to this date meant slipping the notice out on a Saturday via Twitter instead of, for instance, rolling it out in the presence of Straczynski, executive producer Grant Hill, several cast members and the full force of the television press corps at the Sense8 Television Critics Association panel last week.)

Leaving aside the reasons for the long delay, the renewal notice gives fans room to speculate about where the show is going from here. Straczynski has said Sense8 has a five-year rough plan, like Babylon 5 before it, but the first season certainly suggests that the sensates' mythology is still unfolding, and that there's plenty left to learn about what their connection means and what they can do with it. Sense8 has earned measured praise from critics, in part for its dedication to diversity, its frank and open attitude toward sexuality and ambitious design that has scenes being shot months apart in cities around the world, then seamlessly assembled into sequences that rapidly alternate points of view between, say, one character in Seoul and another in Nairobi. At the same time, critical and fan assessments have been quick to point out how slow the show's build has been, how messy and scattershot its narrative is, how much time it spends on character trivia and how chintzy it's been with the larger arcs.

As a Sense8 fan, I've gone back and forth between being thrilled over the show's intellectual ambition and fantastic action and frustrated with its broadness and lack of focus — a strength/weakness combination that's plagued the Wachowskis' projects since the latter two Matrix movies. So here are a few things I'd like to see out of Sense8's next season, and its future in general:

Less character-building, more character-doing.

The worst problem that plagued the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending was that the lead characters weren't particularly interesting. Their story takes place in front of a huge, complicated intergalactic backdrop, full of high-tech gear, political intrigue and operatic performances. But the leads, played by Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, were flat and underwritten, and no amount of describing them as "janitor space princess" and "super-soldier tech-werewolf" could make them more interesting than the dull rescue-and-romance story that defined them as a standard-issue pulp-SF victim-and-hero set.

Sense8 has addressed the Wachowskis' character problems elaborately and exhaustively, dedicating episode after episode to the sensates' background stories and driving motivations. Each of them has gotten a character arc, with individual obstacles to overcome, shaped by cultural expectations in their locales of birth and driven by personal needs and desires. Will, the Chicago cop, has his impossible-to-live-up-to hero father, his supportive-but-dubious partner and his infatuation with his fellow sensate, Icelandic DJ sensation and traumatized widow Riley. San Francisco trans hacktivist Nomi has her monstrous mother, her infinitely supportive girlfriend Amanita, the devoted hacker buddy she took the rap for when she was underage and the dedicated attention of an international corporation that wants to lobotomize her. Capheus, the Nairobi matatu driver trying to get unadulterated meds for his AIDS-stricken mother, is trying to avoid the gangs that run his city, evade the attention of a ruthless modern warlord and make a success of his bus-driving business in a competitive market. They're all complicated characters, trying to get by in a world that would be dangerous even without the anti-sensate forces gathering against them.

But some of this character-building has come at the expense of story momentum. Like other serialized genre shows — Lost and Heroes come most to mind — Sense8 has alternated building action with character downtime. But the bigger and more intense the action gets, the harder it is to go back to relative trivia. When Nomi is in danger of getting her brain hacked apart, it's difficult to care about whether Mumbai pharmacist Kala is going to follow through with marrying the perfect man, even though she doesn't love him. With Will hot on the trail of the conspiracy that led to the sensates' rebirth and the suicide of their psychic "mother," it's frustrating to cut back to the question of whether closeted Spanish movie star Lito can keep his movie-star status and his idealized boyfriend if he's forcibly outed. The whole first season has been a ramp-up showing how the sensates' psychic connection lets their cluster draw on each other's skills to solve their problems, big and small. But at this point, they've faced such big problems — literally world-spanning ones — that going back to Will's inadequacy around his father just feels retrograde. The show has built a rich backdrop, but it's time to foreground the parts of the story that drive the plot, and that feel satisfying and significant.

Give the villains some motivations that matter.

Sense8's first season focused so much on the heroes' origin stories and their gradually developing interactions that the villains remain an undefined background threat, mostly intimidating because they represent so many unknowns. The Biologic Preservation Organization (a.k.a. BPO), the international corporation that finds out about Nomi's sensate-specific brain development and tries to destroy her or use her against the rest of her cluster, appears to be a classic conspiracy-movie antagonist: It's a continent-spanning organization that seems to have all the information the heroes lack, and can potentially put infinite resources and agents into the field to deal with them. It's a solid setup for drama — it's hard to fight an unknown, except defensively and fearfully — but not a satisfying long-term solution to the need for conflict.

There's nothing wrong with Sense8's first-season focus on its sensate family, but if the creators want to give the show a significant rooting edge, it's time to give the antagonists a little love. Currently, the show feels more than a little like the Doug Liman movie Jumper, where one arrogant kid discovered he could teleport, then instantly drew the wrath of a ridiculously evil conspiracy with a fanatical mission to kill all teleporters. Samuel L. Jackson served as the conspiracy's face, but his only explanation for the existence of his organization, and his own fervent beliefs, was a tossed-off line about how only God should be able to be everywhere at once. Sense8 is in much the same place, with a fanatical organization that has a single meaningful representative — super-powered sensate Mr. Whispers — and no real explanation for its actions, beyond the suggestion that only BPO-approved agents should have access to such power.

That's a plausible real-world motivation for any controlling political or corporate group, but it's not a nuanced enough philosophy to hang five years of stories on, and it isn't in keeping with the complicated individualism of the heroes' side of the story. Not every series has to be The Wire, humanizing all sides of a conflict. Or Game Of Thrones, reveling in hideous behavior to the point where virtually no one is allowed to be a sympathetic character without also becoming a victim. But antagonists always seem more real and more chilling when they're believable people instead of blank faces in an equally faceless network. Motivations as creative as the mythic underpinnings of the series — motivations that go beyond a standard "Power equals control equals evil" — would go a long way toward keeping Sense8's dedication to complicated character interaction intact if it does move away from day-to-day character business.

Pick a tone and stick with it.

There's nothing wrong with dramas using humor to leaven the seriousness. Joss Whedon remains the king of whip-turn comedy-to-drama moments that get the audience laughing, then slam them with abrupt heaviness for extra impact. But Sense8's tone rarely reaches for actual humor. More often, it uses telenovela theatrics and broad, breast-beating silliness where humor might go.

Lito's movie-star plotline has been a particular issue: It gives the series a gloriously ridiculous action sequence in the form of a balletic slo-mo movie-set shootout, and it lets the Wachowskis and Straczynski poke fun at modern moviemaking. But it's also given Sense8 its worst moments, as Lito gets weak and weepy because a fellow sensate is menstruating, or as he wallows endlessly in showy, dramatic grief over soap-operatic developments with his boyfriend. There's plenty of potential tension in Lito's shallowness and image-consciousness going forward. Past episodes have shown that his acting skills can be useful to his cluster, and his fame and fortune might wind up being useful, as well. But there's more story potential in his cluster-mates calling him out for his performative emotionalism than there is in his silly behavior on its own.

Sense8 has largely done interesting work by showing how even though not all conflicts are created equal, they're still hugely important to the people caught up in them. Capheus' attempts to get out of the middle of a war between street criminals and a powerful crime boss are more deadly and dangerous than Nomi's clashes with the mother who still calls her by her birth name (Michael) and insists Nomi's entire identity is based in some sort of momentary dimwitted confusion. The writers make both struggles personal and compelling, yet Nomi's family drama is so broad and emphatic that it borders on unintentional comedy.

As a trans woman herself, Lana Wachowski clearly has a rooting interest in Nomi's storyline, and brings a strong perspective to the table. But at times, the agenda-driven storytelling in Sense8 overwhelms any sense of natural dialogue or comprehensible character. Nomi's mom is an outsize villain figure, a stand-in for every judgmental, small-minded friend or family figure who's failed to empathize with or even attempt to relate to the trans experience. But she's also more straw man than believable character. She's a mustache-twirling object of hatred, set up for the audience to boo. Sense8 could stand to limit its gigantic theatrical gestures to its equally large battles, and keep characters who are meant to be human a little more human-sized.

Please don't do what we think you're doing.

These are all big-picture desires for the series going forward. Getting briefly granular: Most of the obvious big origin-story character arcs have been at least nominally resolved by the end of the first season, but there are still a few major plot hooks on the table. Korean businesswoman and martial artist Sun is still incarcerated for a crime she didn't commit, and her brother is due some revenge. Lito's choices regarding his relationships may or may not actually out him and lose him his career. Above all, Will's actions have left sensate mentor Jonas in BPO's cruel hands, and it's unclear where Jonas' loyalties actually lie — and what can be done to save him either way. Now that the protagonists' cluster is finally working together as a unit, it would be nice to see them take an interest in what they can do about the Jonas problem.

But one of the other obvious plot hooks, tossed out in passing toward the end of the first season, is Capheus' lost sister, abandoned to a Kenyan orphanage when their starving mother couldn't feed her. A few fans have suggested that Nomi's lover Amanita is Capheus' sister, which seems plausible — nothing has been revealed about Amanita's background, except that she lives in San Francisco and has a white mother. She may be mixed-race with an offscreen father yet to be revealed, or she may be adopted. But let's hope Sense8 doesn't go that route. Leaving aside the painful embrace of the "all black people are related somehow" stereotype, it'd be a ridiculous coincidence. The fascination of Sense8 comes from the way the story brings together such diverse people from around the world, forcing them into intimacy they may or may not entirely want. The series makes the vastness of the world approachable by reducing it to a science-fiction-friendly, implausible-yet-compelling network of linked people. Simultaneously ascribing to a small-world theory that's based on an unlikely, accidental connection just undermines the wonder of the big-picture connection.

But assuming the Wachowski/Straczynski brain trust is moving in that direction, they could take a few steps to make the story work. One is by working Nomi and Amanita's relationship into the mythos and giving it a reason to exist: Maybe Nomi's latent connection with Capheus actually brought her and Amanita together. Maybe sensates can sense the genetic anomaly that makes their brains different, and they find it attractive. Maybe, in other words, there's an explanation beyond ridiculous coincidence. Which leads to the best thing Sense8 can do, long-term, to stay thrilling and live up to its initial ambitions.

Make the world bigger.

It's established early on that BPO does genetic testing for the brain developments that make sensates possible. Which implies a genetic link between sensates, as well as a possible family connection. Which means Capheus' sister — Amanita or not — and other family members, from Nomi's awful mom to Will's police-force-legend dad to Kala's sister could each potentially become part of their own clusters someday. It seems less likely with the older generation, especially the parents cast in a conservative and controlling light. But the idea of Amanita having a larger connection to the world than her relationship with Nomi is a heady one, and the idea of bringing in other clusters in later seasons, and focusing on an ever-widening big picture, is mesmerizing. At this point, Sense8 only has one more guaranteed season to build on the sometimes clumsy and erratic, often breathtaking world the creators have established. Here's hoping it keeps getting bigger, better and more developed, and finds the correspondingly bigger fandom that will keep it going until the full plan unfolds.

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