It’s hard to tell from the first three episodes of “Sense8,” the Wachowskis’ new show for Netflix about a group of people who find themselves mentally linked, whether it will have the conceptual genius of “The Matrix,” their breakout smash hit. The series, which premiered today, depicts its large cast seeing apparitions that they can’t explain and that some sinister people seem very eager to stop. Among the strengths of “Sense8” is the show’s recognition that political conditions affect almost all of our lives, and sometimes, its willingness to say and show things that other shows might not. But it’s also another illustration of the important principle that a show’s politics alone can’t make it great art or entertainment.
While “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” have broken some ground in their depiction of the lives of transgender people, “Sense8” presses into new territory with a joyful, explicit sex scene between Nomi (Jamie Clayton, who, like her character, is a transgender woman), and her partner, Amanita (“Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” veteran Freema Agyeman), complete with the relevant equipment. In a flashback, we see the moment when Amanita and Nomi fall in love, at a previous pride event when Amanita defends Nomi from second-wave feminists who see transgender women as invaders.
For those of us who are bureaucracy nerds, there’s a scene where Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) takes a young gang member to an emergency room and finds out that the hospital has started refusing gunshot victims so it can more effectively focus on other patients. If you’re interested in how sexism and homophobia express themselves in specific cultural contexts, “Sense8” has Kala (Tina Desai), who tries to hold onto her professional identity even as her Mumbai family is more excited about her marriage; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a closeted telenovela star; Sun (Doona Bae), who is dealing with sexism in the Seoul business world; and Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Nairobi bus driver, whose face lights up when his supernatural mental connection to the others gives him a glimpse of an LGBT pride celebration in the United States through Nomi’s eyes.
I just wish the show’s political components had the same wit or joy that comes across elsewhere. In the second episode, as Nomi prepares to head off to a pride parade, she records a video for her blog. It’s the kind of thing that might go viral if it were posted on Tumblr, with a hundred sites aggregating it with titles like “Blogger destroys transphobia.”
“I’ve been thinking about my life. And all of the mistakes that I’ve made. The ones that stay with me, the ones that I regret, are the ones that I made because of fear,” Nomi muses, as the camera travels from character to character. “For a long time, I was afraid to be who I am because I was taught by my parents that there’s something wrong with someone like me, something offensive, something you would avoid, maybe even pity. Something that you could never love. My mom, she’s a fan of Saint Thomas Aquinas. She calls pride a sin. And of all the venal and mortal sins, Saint Thomas saw pride as the queen of the seven deadlies. He saw it as the ultimate gateway sin that would turn you into a sinaholic. But hating isn’t a sin on that list. Neither is shame. I was afraid of this parade because I wanted so badly to be a part of it. So today I’m marching for that part of me that was once too afraid to march. And for all the people who can’t march, the people living lives like I did. Today I march to remember that I’m not just a me. I’m also a we. And we march with pride.”
But I’ve seen lots of these videos and read lots of these blog posts and speeches, and plenty of -isms are still entrenched and intact. And “Sense8” is not exactly the first Hollywood product to suggest that we’re really all the same, which is the effect of the editing of Nomi’s monologue. “Crash” won an Oscar off that idea.
It’s not that I think “Sense8” is naive, exactly; there are people having experiences in common all over the world, and the idea that they could learn from each other and feel stronger for knowledge of each other’s existence is powerful. I just wish that, through the three episodes I’ve seen, there was something spikier and more surprising about what the characters saw when they woke up in each other’s worlds. In one terrific moment in the pilot, a rider on Capheus’s bus insists on paying him with a chicken, arguing that “this is worth more than the fare,” and for a moment, Sun is shocked when that same chicken appears to wander across her desk. That’s much more fun and fresh than a moment when a cork pops out of a bottle of champagne to punctuate a sex joke.
Clearer understandings of how big bureaucracies work, or more specific portraits of underrepresented experiences may make for richer and more nuanced pop culture. “The Wire” is a more interesting cop show for David Simon’s reporting on Baltimore. “Jane the Virgin” is a much more emotionally engaging show for its embrace of telenovela tropes and its respect for the characters’ Catholicism. But the kinds of politics designed to appeal to progressive viewers — or even practices such as casting a transgender actress to play a transgender character — don’t inherently make for great art or entertainment.