Netflix has had many successes in its original programming slate. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie, and Orange Is the New Black were huge comedy successes, while Bloodline, House of Cards, and Daredevil have brought success in the dramatic genre. And of course there have been dozens of excellent documentaries and stand-up comedy specials.
But nearly all of those and Netflix’s other hits were either remakes, adaptations, or just quality shows that are not in any way groundbreaking. Which isn’t a knock—some of the greatest shows ever were just really great at doing something that had already been done to death.
Netflix does have one unbelievably unique original property, though, that has not been getting the publicity and praise it deserves since its release in June. While it was quietly renewed for a second season last week, I was just discovering the first season, and now it’s all I can talk about. If you haven’t seen Sense8 yet, you’ve been missing the best show Netflix has made, and the most original show on TV.
To begin with, Sense8 (which I concede off the bat is a terrible title) is as low concept as they come, and I can’t even fathom how the Wachowskis, the enigmatic sibling directors of The Matrix saga and Cloud Atlas, pitched the show to Netflix execs. Co-conceived and written by fellow sci-fi royalty J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, the show is about eight strangers from all over the world who discover they have a deep and incredibly bizarre bond. That’s the best I could do for a fast version.
The bond they have is that their minds are linked (and super-powered) and they have all sorts of weird new abilities like astral projection, mind-reading, possession, and others. The powers are activated all of a sudden at different points in the harried lives of the eight strangers living in Kenya, India, Germany, Mexico, the United States, South Korea, and England. They manifest in uncontrollable and increasingly surprising, not to mention powerful, ways. But very slowly as the show progresses, they become focused and a shadowy cabal dead set on the capture and de-powering of the eight reveals itself at molasses pace.
But the twist, and insanely enough the mind-melding isn’t the twist, is that the show is only a sci-fi show as like a sixth or seventh priority. Primarily the show is a drama about different people finding the strength to overcome their personal obstacles. These obstacles range from career and family dysfunction to gender and sexual identity, political, criminal, and cultural obstacles, and the giant of destiny lurking over the horizon.
If I were to describe the show to a stranger I would call it a dramatic comedy about living in the 21st century and beyond. And it may be the first wholly original offering Netflix has created, and the most exciting thing on TV right now.
This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have flaws. In between the mind-blowing concepts are the rote scenes of action that sometimes feel a bit contrived. The writing isn’t always without embarrassingly cheesy lines. But the value of a show that takes real risks and tries new concepts while appealing to a worldwide audience is almost impossible to overstate.
Sense8 has protagonists that should appeal to both women and men of nearly every cultural persuasion. It has trend-defining storylines about LGBT characters that stretch beyond anything seen on TV before. I did find some of the “sexiness,” a word I put in quotations because I’m not sure it really exists on TV, to be tiring, but some of it to be genuinely fascinating and actually in service of the story unlike the “sexiness” on popular shows like Game of Thrones.
The numbers on viewership for Sense8 haven’t been as robust as on other Netflix originals, and the production costs are extreme for the globetrotting sci-fi amalgamation. But Netflix wisely re-upped for a second season promising more insanity and surprises and cementing the network as a vanguard for the future of the medium.
All 12 episodes of the first season of Sense8 are available to stream on Netflix.