SENSE8 and the Politics of Watching TV

The new Netflix series, Sense8 (by the Wachowski siblings) isn’t a great series, but, set in the context of the ever-expanding television market, it is a must-watch series if you care about what type of content gets made. 


Sense8‘s plot is sketchy: scattered around the world are eight sensates, people that can mentally connect with one another across vast distances. Will is Chicago PD, Nomi is a transgender hacker in San Francisco, Capheus is a bus driver in Nairobi, Wolfgang is a criminal in Berlin, Sun is a financier in Seoul, Lito is a movie star in Mexico City, Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London, and Kala is a pharmacist in Mumbai. Not only do they share conversations and engage in physical touch, they can also draw from each other’s memory banks and abilities to get through the various troubles in which they find themselves, chief among them coming to terms with these new abilities. They all share a vision of Angelica (Daryl Hannah), a woman that shoots herself at the beginning of the series and converse with Jonas (Naveen Andrews), a mysterious man who slowly fills them in on their new identity as members of a “cluster” and warns them of an enemy force, Whispers, that seeks to kill them all. Sense8 follows these characters as they help one another get through life and evade Whispers.


A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about Sherwood Pictures, the church-based film production company responsible for evangelical propaganda films like Facing the GiantsFireproof, and Courageous. In August, the Kendrick brothers, the visionaries behind Sherwood Pictures, will release their next film, the theme of which will be the power of prayer. It’s called War Room, and the title succinctly captures their stance vis-a-vis pop culture. Every time the Kendrick brothers release a new film, they bang the culture war drum, encouraging their troops to support their films (and others like them) while avoiding those other vile Hollywood productions. This, of course, ignores one important fact: Sherwood Pictures and the Kendrick brothers couldn’t exist without deep, working relationship with Hollywood. At the same time, their marching orders might also be falling on deaf ears within their own community. Surely some of their congregants went out to see Jurassic World on opening weekend?

That being said, it’s hard not to see Sense8, as a shot in a culture battle, so to speak. In more than its sci-fi themes and ambiguous approach to religion, it’s a clear product of one of its creators. Lana Wachowski is a transgender woman, and Sense8 has no shortage of sexually diverse characters and is, perhaps, one of the few shows to fully embrace the LGBTQ spectrum. But Sense8 is not LGBTQ for the sake of being LGBTQ. It’s using this diverse cast of characters to say something about our identity as human beings in a global community that is simultaneously coming closer together and becoming more volatile. Through both its narrative and its existence as a streaming series it’s telling us something that we need to hear.

The heart of Sense8 is the reality that there is no us and them, even as its narrative is built on a major distinction between two types of people. First, there are the sensates and their sympathizers, people who know the truth of their interdependence, their similarities with one another, and the depth of their connections on both a spiritual and a cellular level. On the other hand, there are those who would deny that reality and violently suppress it. Their world is built on division, hierarchy, and competition. Of course, most of us embrace this lie and deny our true identities in the process. As Nomi points out, “Their violence was petty and ignorant, but ultimately, it was true to who they were. The real violence–the violence that I realized was unforgivable–is the violence that we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.” While Nomi is reflecting on her own experiences of being tormented and oppressed, it’s a universal observation.

Religion has had a history of both oppressing and liberating identity, and religion plays an important, if ambiguous, role in Sense8. The series opens in a disheveled cathedral, which might point to traditional Christianity’s bankruptcy in America. I would say that this might apply to all religions, but then there’s the portrayal of a vibrant Hinduism in India and Kala’s participation in it. Episode 7, “W.W.N. Double D?,” contains one of the most beautiful sequences about religion that I have seen in film or television in quite some time as Kala recalls falling in love with the faith. The Wachowskis seems to suggest that the lived, ritual experience of religion seems to be far more important than any affirmation of rules or a belief system. On one hand, Nomi tells Aquinas to “go fuck yourself.” On the other hand, Kala’s father-in-law is something of a new atheist who wants to diminish religion’s role in Indian culture, but he meets a violent end in the very temple that he would shut down. Fundamentalism and zealotry of any kind seem to have no place in the Wachowskis’ world. The sensates’ experiences of communing with one another might well be the Wachowskis’ strongest “religious conviction.” These experiences don’t happen as a result of being a member of a traditional religious community with rules and regulations, but by doesn’t happen in a place with rules and regulations, but by virtue of our very identity as global citizens.

But back to the message that Sense8 sends by virtue of its existence in the television landscape. The medium is also the message, and the medium here is the diverse LGBTQ characters. Popular culture has always played a key role in bringing social change in any era, and its power might be most prevalent in the struggle for gay rights and marriage equality. With Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision, many publications traced this history. Film and television writers owe it to audiences to portray the diversity of the world in which we live, even if they set their narratives in outer space or in the distant future. As pop culture consumers, we owe those creators courageous enough to do so a few hours of our time. As we do, perhaps more networks will make space for the beautifully complex voices and identities that make up the human community.