High concept science-fiction dramas are usually all about a lead character or duo, figuring out how to battle alien invasions, talking the language of computers and codes, or trying to defeat mythical creatures. Rarely do they interweave themes like gender, identity, race, politics, religion through a multicultural lens. Netflix’s epic drama “Sense8” is one of the exceptions.
The streaming giant, over the last few years, has provided an overload of award-winning TV shows, ranging from “Orange is the New Black” to “Master of None” to “Stranger Things.” This year alone, it will launch about 700 original shows, according to Variety. With such a large number, it’s easy for certain gems to simply get lost in the pile.
Launched in 2015, “Sense8” hails from Lana and Lily Wachowski, the mastermind siblings behind “The Matrix” movies. The sci-fi drama has an extremely passionate, vocal, and global fanbase. When it was canceled after two seasons in 2017, they launched online appeals to bring it back, leading Netflix to give it one final shot: a movie style, two-hour series finale to wrap up the story. This finale rolls out on June 8, during Pride Month, which is beyond fitting for this show.
The reason “Sense8” connects with people from all over the world is that for the show, the entire world is its playground, literally. It centers on eight people from different countries. They’ve cast diverse actors for the roles, lending authenticity to the complicated narrative of the show. Plus, they shoot on location, adding even more depth and realism to a world of wild fiction.
“Sense8” isn’t without its flaws, you can’t avoid that when you have eight central leads to focus on while constructing a believable yet thrilling mystery. It still makes for an engaging, unique, and most importantly, timely television saga. It’s grandiose in nature, in concept, and in evoking emotions.
Tina Desai (“The Exotic Marigold Hotel”) plays Kala Dandekar, a pharmacist in India, Doona Bae plays Sun Bak, a businesswoman and kickboxer in Korea, Brian J. Smith plays Chicago police officer Will Gorski, Jamie Clayton plays Nomi Marks, a hacktivist from San Francisco, Miguel Angel Silvestre plays successful Mexican cinema actor Lito Rodriguez, Toby Onwumere plays Capheus Onyango, a minibus driver in Africa, Tuppence Middleton plays an Icelandic DJ named Riley Blue, and Max Riemelt plays Wolfgang Bogdanow, a low-level criminal in Germany.
Together - Kala, Sun, Will, Nomi, Lito, Capheus, Riley, and Wolfgang - they form their own cluster of sensates; a species of humans who can telepathically connect with one another, including sharing their knowledge, skills, and language. They become psychically and emotionally connected in unimaginable ways. As they begin learning more about each other and what it means to be sensates, they realize they are up against some truly evil corporations. The eight of them, despite their physical distance, personal issues and differing opinions, have to band together to defeat their enemies.
One of the strongest suit is its ability to give us diversified heroes. Kala is a devout Hindu who often visits Ganesha temples to talk to her favorite deity. She preaches non-violence whereas Sun, a burgeoning underground kickboxer see’s that as her only way out of problems. Yet, the two women share a real friendship. Nomi is a proud trans woman and lesbian, thriving in a happy relationship. Lito is a closeted gay man who comes to terms with coming out to the world while balancing his own long-term relationship. Capheus hails from a poor economy in Nairobi, struggling to make ends meet for his mother, who is suffering from AIDS. The show doesn’t shy away from these taboo topics, it revels in them.
Let’s focus on Kala and the show’s ability to tackle South Asian representation. Desai’s Kala Dandekar is an intelligent, soft-spoken pharmacist who works in a large-scale company in Mumbai. Her scenes are almost always shot in the city itself. Its not a studio set of shabby-looking Indian streets, the ones filled with cows and rickshaws and extras with a fake accent. The show gives us a glimpse into the real middle-class Mumbai, something we haven’t seen on TV before.
Kala shares a warm relationship with her father Sanyam (Anupam Kher). When the show begins, she is about to to marry Rajan Rasal (Purab Kohli), the son of her company’s CEO, even though she doesn’t really love him. At least not at first. During their festivities, we see the couple break into a song and dance in the typical sangeet style of an Indian wedding. Usually, we’ve seen this on American TV as a way to poke fun at Bollywood’s stereotypes (“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Simpson”). In this case, at least it feels organic.
Once her cluster of sensates is activated and she learns more about who she really is, Kala bonds with fellow cluster-mate Wolfgang and they fall for each other, despite completely different upbringings and beliefs.
You may think her story comes with stereotypical tropes like arranged marriage and a love triangle. You’re not wrong. Despite these tropes, Kala’s story navigates into how a strong-willed woman like her handles all the problems thrown at her, whether its her growing love for Wolfgang, commitment to Rajan, or even her father-in-law to be’s corruption scandal. “Sense8” doesn’t just dwell on the so-called negatives of an arranged marriage but also dives into post-marital joys and woes.
She is no damsel in distress. Kala, like the other members of her cluster, has a set of skills that end up proving very handy. Her pharmacy and chemical know-how helps them get out of dangerous situations. Desai has grown into this role with ease, transforming herself into a fighter without losing her essence.
Actor Anupam Kher, who will star in NBC’s upcoming drama “New Amsterdam,” plays her father figure. A legend in Bollywood, he is fairly well-known in the West because of his role in “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Bride and Prejudice,” and Canadian comedy “The Indian Detective.” In “Sense8,” even though he is a recurring star, he leaves an impact with his wise words and emotional scenes. Other Bollywood actors like like Purab Kohli, Darshan Jariwala, Mita Vashist make recurring appearances as Kala’s husband and in-laws, respectively.
British-Indian actor Naveen Andrews also recurs in the drama. He plays Jonas Maliki, a member of another cluster who guides these newbie eight folks as they strive to figure out what all this means. Andrews is one of the earliest South Asian players in the West, with big screen roles in “Bride and Prejudice” and “Provoked” to small screen hits like “Lost” and “Instinct,” in which he currently stars.
Besides all of this, “Sense8” is quite the cinematic and globe-trotting experience. Since the show shoots on location in different parts of the world, we get to travel with it, too. From San Francisco to Mumbai to Seoul to Mexico City to Reykjavik to Nairobi to London, the screenplay is stunning. This is evident from the opening credits itself.
In fact, the biggest reason “Sense8” had an impact on me early on is not only because I saw myself in it (how often do we see South Asian faces in a primary role in a sci-fi drama?) but also because how accurately they portrayed the city I grew up in: Mumbai.
Most portrayals of this burgeoning city in American media is limited to what viewers saw in “Slumdog Millionaire.” On the TV side, “The Mindy Project” and “Arrested Development” have smaller scenes set in Indian cities but they’re poorly constructed sets featuring cows on the roads, dust and pollution, and hella honking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like that doesn’t exist but that’s definitely not all that it is. There is just so much more.
Kala’s scenes are almost always set in Mumbai locations that are rarely seen and even nostalgic for me. Sea-facing Marine Drive and Chowpatty Beach, lots of Ganesha temples, idyllic cafes serving local delicacies, working class millennials, a dynamic metropolitan city. It excited me to know that only American but also audiences across the world will get a real glimpse of Mumbai. I’m sure fellow fans sitting in and from Nairobi, Mexico City, Seoul, and Mumbai felt the same way.
At the heart of all of the romances and sexual identities and politics, however, “Sense8” remains a powerful sci-fi mystery, despite its intricacies and convolutions. The show has balanced both sides of the coin, making them almost reliant. You can’t really have one without the other, in this case. The science and the fantasy thrives because the characters and their relationships are growing, learning, and maturing. With two seasons and a short finale, “Sense8” will hopefully leave a lasting impact on its many viewers who could see themselves represented on the show.
The “Sense8” series finale streams on Netflix on June 8.