Sense8 Turns Empathy into High-Concept Science Fiction


Since its debut on Netflix, Sense8 has received deserved praise for its ambition and its diversity. However, it’s worth remembering that a diverse show with terrible writing and boring characters would still be a pretty bad show. Thankfully, Sense8 avoids those pitfalls. The new series from the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski is not perfect, but it is beautifully sincere, with a phenomenal cast and a fantastic sci-fi premise that complements the show’s admirable diversity.

More to the point, Sense8 is explicitly about empathy. The show begins when eight strangers from around the globe are reborn as sensates with a telepathic link. Because they essentially share the same mind, the sensates intuitively understand and respect one another despite differences that might ordinarily drive them apart.

The relationship between Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Will (Brian J. Smith) is the best example. Early in the show Nomi is incarcerated against her will and spends much of the series running from the law. She’s also a hacktivist with an appropriate mistrust of authority. And yet Will, a Chicago police officer, is the sensate that helps her escape, and the two prove to be an effective team when they use their investigative skills to unravel the show’s mysteries.

Even though they would seem to be on opposite sides of the law, their ability to empathize allows them to move beyond those superficial indicators. Will recognizes the inherent injustice of what is happening to Nomi. Meanwhile, Nomi understands that Will is an officer because he wants to do what’s right to protect other people.

The show is littered with similar moments of intimacy and intuition. Kala (Tina Desai) and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) both feel the pressures of familial and cultural expectations. Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) and Sun (Bae Doona) both feel the need to hide aspects of their personalities in order to survive in public.

The supporting cast is equally empathetic, largely because it has few true villains. A lesser show might have made Kala’s fiancée Rajan an unrepentant jerk, but Rajan (Purab Kohli) turns out to be a pretty decent guy. To do what’s right for herself, Kala must do something that could hurt someone that doesn’t deserve it, and her decision is more difficult because it’s weighted in humanity and compassion instead of revenge, cruelty, or catharsis.

The sensates have a natural advantage, but anyone with an open mind is able to listen and relate (see: Freema Agyeman’s Amanita), and the moments of shared understanding – though melodramatic – are consistently the highlights of the show. The ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes – to feel their joy and their sadness – is filmed as a magical, transformative experience, a sense of wonder communicated through something as simple as fireworks or a musical performance.

Sense8 suggests that people are all connected, and that if we can see beyond differences of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and profession, our minds and our humanity are remarkably consistent and compassionate. The show simply makes that ideal literal through the introduction of the sensates, making its point far more effectively than other high-concept science fiction based around conflict rather than consensus.

It makes for one of the most refreshingly well-structured and optimistic shows on television, aptly demonstrating that empathy can be just as spectacular as violence.

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