Through the first two episodes of Sense8, the new Netflix series co-created by Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas infamy, a recurring thought kept resonating through my mind: Poor Daryl Hannah.
Here’s an acclaimed actress capable of drama, comedy, and action, and so far, she’s reduced to a walk-on role here. She anchors the action that kicks off the 12 episode series but then, after putting a bullet through her head, wanders through the rest of the first hour like an apparition. And then she’s abandoned completely by the second chapter.
That’s the trouble with stories like this or Cloud Atlas, where the writers (usually the Wachowskis and former Babylon 8 writer J. Michael Straczynski) need to bounce between eight different storylines: someone is going to get the short end of the stick from episode-to-episode.
At least that’s the case for the second installment. For the opening salvo, the Wachowskis do the right and necessary thing by introducing us to the eight people who are, for reasons as yet unrevealed, connected by some psychic link. Or reborn as sensates by Hannah’s character, if you will. They are a far flung group as well: a transsexual blogger/activist from San Francisco, a bus driver from Nairobi, a DJ from London, a cop from Chicago, a financial officer from Seoul, an actor from Mexico City, a young bride-to-be from Mumbai, and a petty criminal from Berlin. After this “rebirth,” all of them start suffering migraines, seeing strange hallucinations of Hannah’s character wandering through their lives, and eventually start to see and feel some of what the others are feeling.
Not much really becomes clear in these first two episodes other than that there’s a man named Jonas (who actually says, “My name is Jonas,” at one point and I half-expected the Weezer tune to kick in) trying to bring the eight people together, starting with Nomi (the Californian) and Will (from Illinois).
The trouble is that, by the time the second hour ends, both are in a terrible state. Nomi has been locked away in a hospital after her doctor diagnoses her with undifferentiated frontal lobe syndrome, a disease that is supposedly fusing the two halves of her brain together. There’s a suspicion that the doctor is on some plot to keep her lobotomized, hence why she’s being watched over by security and why her girlfriend can’t visit her. For Will, he’s trying to shake off some awful incident from his past involving a woman named Sara Patrell, and trying to nab Jonas per the instructions of Homeland Security. By the end of the second hour, he might just have done it.
Beyond that, the show rightfully keeps us in the dark, aside from letting us see that each one of the characters is at some kind of crossroads. Some are dealing with the potential fallout of illegal activity. Riley, the British DJ, just watched her boyfriend and buddy get killed trying to rob a drug dealer, and winds up with a bag full of cash and baggies of intoxicants. In Germany, Wolfgang aims to live up to the unfortunate example of his criminal father by cracking a safe and stealing a mess of diamonds. The Korean businesswoman Sun and the Mexican movie star Lito, on the other hand, are trying to keep things hidden: for her, a sketchy financial deal of some kind and for him, his homosexuality from the press. The final pair, the Kenyan driver Capheus and the Indian affianced Kala, have big personal issues to wrestle with. He is scraping by while trying to keep his ailing mother alive. She is wrestling with the fact that she doesn’t really love the man she’s about to marry.
It seems like a lot, but to give the Wachowskis and Straczynski credit, they lay this all out in nice broad strokes so no one loses the plot. Unfortunately that also means a lot of really wonky dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in soap operas like Empire or Falcon Crest. I also don’t understand why they insisted on making sure every character spoke English in the show. That will likely help the eight find common ground when they inevitably connect, but it feels a little lazy to not expect that viewers could hang with a multi-cultural show with dialogue spoken in their mother tongues.
For the show’s unsteady beginning, it does feel as if everything is building up nicely in a similar fashion to Lost, or the first season of Heroes. Little details and big dramatic moments are doled out in chunks, as if we were in a hamster cage, pressing on a lever. Which is a fine metaphor for you clicking your remote or trackpad to get the next episode rolling. And I do think there’s enough here to sustain a full 12 hours of programming, unlike other episodic sci-fi dramas that could have easily been reduced to a two hour film and would lose nothing in the transition.
Outside of their sensate connections, though, there hasn’t been a whole lot to make these characters really stand out on their own. Will’s story is interesting insofar as it reveals some nasty truths about Chicago, as when he tries to get a gunshot victim tended to at a hospital, they try to send him away because they don’t treat those anymore. His strained relationship with his father (played by Wachowski regular Joe Pantoliano) might also yield some interesting drama.
Outside of that, there’s only been one other character that I’ve been invested in: Nomi. This is where Sense8 is going to get a lot of attention, and rightfully so. As played by Jamie Clayton, the character is an unapologetic and proud transsexual, enjoying the hell out of her life in San Francisco. As her story begins, she and her partner are getting ready to celebrate Pride Week, and we get to see so much of the joy and power of the LGBT community in that city. It puts the more low-key efforts by the creators of Looking to shame. Through Nomi we see some of the struggles of transsexuals worldwide: angry rhetoric from within their community, and the frustration at not being supported by family (her mother refuses to call her anything but “Michael” in their brief interaction in the hospital). Like Lee Daniels and his onscreen proxy Jamal did in Empire, this is Lana Wachowski writing from a place of truth and possibly deep psychic wounds at what she had to go through as she transitioned. If nothing else comes from Sense8’s existence, let the character of Nomi be another welcome sign at the world’s hopeful acceptance of transsexuals in our culture.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.