Those who saw the magnificently terrible Jupiter Ascending might, paradoxically, have high hopes for Sense8. The series’ first 12 episodes, which are live on Netflix as of today, constitute the Wachowski siblings’ first foray into television. The change of medium could be interpreted as an attempt to creatively reinvigorate their work, or at least alter the sharp downward trajectory of its critical reception. Here’s the problem with that strategy: as Jupiter fans know, the Wachowskis’ ludicrously entertaining ambitions have finally crossed over into the entertainingly ludicrous. But Sense8 is no camp classic; disappointed viewers will find no Eddie Redmayne whisper-yelling here, nor any romantic leads earnestly professing they “love dogs.” Sense8 may technically be better than Jupiter or Cloud Atlas or Speed Racer. It’s also much less fun to watch.
The basic premise of Sense8 is laid out in its baffling cold open: a dying woman named Angelica (Daryl Hannah [!!!]) kills herself in a Chicago church, though not until she psychically “gives birth” to the show’s title characters, eight unrelated individuals across the globe. Angelica’s actions appear to mentally link these people without their knowledge, thereby making them targets of the obligatory global conspiracy against their kind. The eight are, in order of the impact their connection seems to have on their lives: Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago cop with a dark past; Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a transgender woman in San Francisco; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ based in London; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a Berlin safe-cracker; Sun (Doona Bae), the CFO of her family’s struggling, Seoul-based company; Kala (Tina Desai), a Mumbai pharmaceutical worker engaged to a rich man she doesn’t love; Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a closeted Mexican megastar; and Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Nairobi van driver caring for his mother, who suffers from AIDS.
If that sounds like a lot of separate arcs to balance… it is! Especially since, as of Episode 3, several of them are only peripherally related to the central mysteries of the series. Nomi and Will receive visits from a cryptic figure named Jonas (Naveen Andrews) and quickly shift into thriller mode, going on car chases and fighting medical imprisonment. Lito and Kala — and pretty much everyone else except Riley, for that matter — remain wrapped up in their own personal dramas, except for brief glimpses into each other’s lives. Engagement-party dance sequences and arguments about whether Lito needs a live-in beard are amusing, yet oddly low-stakes. It’s safe to assume that by season’s end everyone’s lives will be affected by the connection beyond hallucinating a chicken at their desk, but that still doesn’t explain why Sense8 isn’t Sense5, or Maybe 6 to Get an Even Number.
The series bears some Wachowski signatures: an obsession with interconnectedness, like Cloud Atlas without the yellowface; clunky, clichéd dialogue; and trippy visuals, though noticeably scaled down from the big screen. (Think actors swapped through editing, not giant, glittering spaceships rendered through CGI.) As a whole, however, there’s not much to distinguish Sense8 from your standard network supernatural sci-fi show in the vein of Lost or Fringe, with a serialized rather than episodic structure, an admirable plurality of queer, trans, and nonwhite characters, and an occasional “fuck” reminding viewers they’re watching this on the Internet.
Sense8 is so plot-driven it’s impossible to deliver a final verdict until its overarching story has been given some time to rise in the oven. And yet the show’s first three episodes aren’t compelling enough to encourage that kind of patience. They’re too overstuffed, disjointed, and rambling to be good; they don’t double down enough on shamelessly cheesy sequences like Sun’s random foray into Korean Fight Club to be bad-in-a-good-way, either. Binge-watching is a model that rewards extreme reactions: a viewer loves a show enough to stay glued to her couch, or she hates a show enough to snark-tweet the night away. For middle-of-the-road series like Sense8, however, indifference might prove lethal.