Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of strangers’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. It’s one of the most elemental story setups that exists. Are we talking Lost? Speed? Contagion? Golden Girls? Or are we talking about the story of mankind itself?
One not-too-uncommon twist on the premise takes it abstract, ratcheting up the strangeness of the strangers and playing coy about how exactly they intersect. Crash, Babel, and the entire rom-com genre spawned by Love, Actually follow lives that touch one another only glancingly. A recent boomlet of novels, like Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, hopscotch between characters separated by the places they live, the voices in which they speak, and the decades they’re born in. Often, the reader’s left to guess at why the various chapters from different points of view exist as part of the same book.
When they work, stories like these can make even the most jaded consumer of culture get a little giddy about humanity’s vastness and its interconnectedness. But to do so, each individual character’s story has to hold the reader or viewer’s interest. Some chapters of Cloud Atlas and Goon Squad could work as self-contained short stories. Some actually have.
Sense8, the new Netflix show from the Wachowskis (the siblings who created The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski (the showrunner for Babylon 5), would like to join this tradition. The Wachowskis already oversaw the big-budget 2012 adaptation of Cloud Atlas, which earnestly tried to evoke the magic of Mitchell’s novel, made up of disparate narratives that spanned from the 1800s to a future century. (It flopped.) Sense8 is all set in the present, but the premise is just as hydra-like: Eight random people scattered all over the globe—a cop in Chicago, a bus driver in Nairobi, a businesswoman in Seoul, etc.—find their minds suddenly linked in mysterious ways, for mysterious reasons.
It’s a cool idea that pays off with some spine-tingling moments in the three episodes screened for critics. The characters peer into one another’s realities, feel one another’s feelings, and share one another’s skills only in fits and starts—most often in moments of high drama, either because of the way that the mind connection works in the show’s universe or because of the need for contrivance in any television story. Towards the end of one episode, a hijacking unfolds in Africa as a kickboxing match goes down in South Korea, resulting in a cross-continental martial-arts sequence. At another moment, love scenes transpire in India, Germany, and Mexico, resulting in some amusingly overlapping emotions for those involved.
But gosh-wow moments like those are rare, at least so far. Most of the screen time fleshes out the eight fairly banal principals’ lives. This affords the show the chance to dabble in an array of classic film situations: a Bollywood dance routine, a cop ride-along, a criminal’s safecracking. It also affords the program some refreshing diversity in regards to race and, more notably, sex and sexuality. Two gay couples figure in prominently, and the protagonist with perhaps the most screen time is a transgender woman. Still, many of these stories feel familiar. Does the sensitive Chicago cop have a hard-drinking dad and a partner skeptical of his compassion? Does the transgender activist—she prefers “hacktivist”—have a controlling, disapproving mother who insists on calling her by her male birth name? Of course and of course.
As has happened so many times in the Wachowskis’ career, you’re left wishing they’d been paid for their initial idea and that the execution had been left entirely to someone else. The wooden solemnity of Keanu Reaves et. al in The Matrix is proven again to be less of an aesthetic feature of that particular movie and more a result of how the filmmakers direct their actors. Outside of some neat crosscutting between story-lines, the Wachowskis’ visual sensibility hasn’t evolved much either. The title sequence is a good indication: It’s made up of not-particularly-well-framed postcard shots from around the world, presented at an iPhoto automated slideshow tempo, with fonts and music that might have seemed edgy on a mid-‘90s Prodigy album. Bloat is a problem, too. Into this mesh of stories, why add further clutter via flashbacks featuring different actors?
Some clunkiness and blah characterization would be acceptable if the overarching story held attention. But three episodes in, the connected-minds premise has only occasionally figured into the narrative, with almost no explanation for what’s going on. It’s not that the show relies on mystery too much; it’s that it doesn’t rely on it enough, at least not yet. Episodes end on cliffhangers based on car chases and boxing matches and other dramatic happenings that would be part of the characters’ lives regardless of the supernatural meta-plot, and given that those lives aren’t all that riveting, the viewer’s not left itching for the next episode.
It’s frustrating, because there are flashes of fascination in here. The way that the emotions and visions of the “sensates” bleed together resembles mental illness, and is often treated as such. The same fantasy of The Matrix, that one could download a life’s worth of knowledge into the brain, is present here, but with a metaphorical twist—know-how comes from connecting to another person, not to a vast technological network. And some of the individual plotlines are more charming than others; a comical one featuring a closeted actor and his “beard” entertainingly shows the movie star trying to use his professional acting abilities in his private life.
But the momentum simply isn’t there. The disconnected stories of Cloud Atlas that the Wachowskis so admired worked on the page because David Mitchell is a talented wordsmith with a knack for suspense. Love, Actually, for whatever else you might say about it, packed in enough wit and sentiment so as to not bore people. The medium isn’t the problem: The sprawling, often disconnected ensemble of Game of Thrones hangs together on the strength of scene-to-scene acting and writing. Sense8 thinks as big as any of these works, but botches the small stuff, and the result is a show about humanity where it’s hard to care about any of the humans.