Watching Sense8 isn’t that different from eating an entire bag of candy at once. For a while, there’s a delightful sugar high, but the more candy you eat, and the more time passes, the worse you start to feel. The fact is that it’s not enough to sustain you, even if you wish it were. Sense8‘s heart is in the right place, and some of it is downright dazzling, but its faults are still too glaring to be ignored.
The series centers on a group of eight people around the globe who are mentally and emotionally linked, called “sensates.” They can call upon each other to utilize each other’s skills, from acting to martial arts, and they discover the extent of their connection, they begin to realize that they’re not unique, and that there’s something out there hunting them. The end of season one revealed the boogeyman to be a man called Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann) and the organization behind him, dedicated to wiping out sensates by using them against each other. Season two sees Whispers in a much more prominent role, which is for the benefit of the series if not for its protagonists. Having a solid force to fight against is more interesting than the independent sussing out of life as a sensate, and focusing on the mind games that come with the territory also lead Sense8 away from its biggest missteps.
Sense8 is at its best when showcasing its cast’s powers. As they drop in and out of the frame as they use each other’s skills, the visuals are mesmerizing. But when the show starts trying to explicitly make a bigger point about human nature. The show’s cast is diverse, but its portrayals feel like lip service at best. The lives of the characters outside of America feel broadly drawn and, at worst, like stereotypes. It doesn’t help that all of the characters speak English. There’s an explanation for this that could have passed, in that there are multiple American sensates in our main group and since they all implicitly understand each other, English is the default, but it’s not a point that holds when, later on in the new season, a couple of characters exchange greetings in Korean. There’s no other slip (at least, not if you’re not counting the accents that the characters sport), and it’s jarring as a result.
These oversights are even more rankling when the show’s points are all made in generalizations. A speech in the very first episode of the new seasons drops too many platitudes to count, but amounts to this: all humans are the same, and we all share our experiences. It’s a bizarre sentiment from a show that is supposedly trying to showcase distinctly different experiences, as well as using uniqueness as a marker for beauty.
Granted, that stress can also backfire. As is hard to avoid on a show with eight protagonists (spread around the globe, no less), some of the storylines start to diverge in ways that don’t necessarily serve the larger show. In that sense, Sense8 suffers from some of the same problems that Netflix’s other shows do, i.e. a tendency to draw things out when fat could easily be cut (as well as a fondness for seeing what audiences respond to and then putting too much of that in, which in this case is dream-sequence orgies and slow-mo dance numbers). Depending on which of those storylines you invest in, you might find yourself getting impatient more often than not.
It’s hard to reconcile those weak spots with how good the show can otherwise be. The Wachowskis know how to make action sequences sing, and unraveling both the organization behind Whispers and the broader web of sensates makes for thrilling TV (helped along by some extremely choice cameos, including the return of Joe Pantoliano). There are also some remarkable performances (notably Jamie Clayton as Nomi Marks and Purab Kohli as Rajan Rasal) that help to anchor the series when it starts to lean too far into broad strokes. This is one of the most diverse casts on TV — and likely the most diverse that a large number of viewers are going to see — and the bottom line of acceptance and understanding is still an encouraging one. Parts of the show have gotten stronger in its second season; hopefully, as the series goes on, the rest of it will follow suit.