Emmy spotlight: Netflix’s ‘Sense8’ is an object lesson in empathy & diversity

sense8 cast netflix emmy

Wasn’t it just a few years ago that Netflix was first hoping to get noticed by the Emmys for their early forays into scripted series, “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards“? Now the online streaming service has enough programming to populate its own award show all by itself, so now the question is not, “Will the Emmys recognize Netflix?” but rather, “Will the Emmys recognize this Netflix show against all the others?” “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” are already on the radar, and “Narcos” appears to be the outlet’s best bet at another prestige hit, but I’d like to make a case for a less obvious contender: “Sense8.”

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Sense8” is not the kind of show the TV academy would normally recognize: it’s a sci-fi series with a complex mythology, and it’s tonally mixed between drama, comedy, adventure, romance, caper and thriller. But last summer it took me by surprise. I sampled it expecting a guilty pleasure but finished the season with only pleasure. And for all its infectious fun, it’s also exactly the right show for our current cultural discussion because it is an object lesson in diversity.

The word “diversity” was thrown around a lot during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and it’s an important subject, but it may be too simple a word for such a complex issue. And it often sparks backlash that is, to say the least, disappointing: Is that a black stormtrooper or a woman with an opinion? Burn them!

But to watch “Sense8” is to see diversity in action, not as a buzzword or as an obligation inflicted by those evil, politically correct social justice warriors. No, it demonstrates diversity as a means of making stories better, bigger, more open to possibilities and with greater opportunities for conflict and connection between characters.

So let me try to describe the plot. I’ll keep it simple: It’s about eight individuals spread across the globe who have a mysterious psychic link that allows them to share thoughts, emotions, skills, memories and experiences. They can’t always control that link, so the characters often interrupt each other’s lives in ways that are awkward, comical or sometimes advantageous — martial arts skills imported from another hemisphere come in handy during a fight.

Those eight characters include just about as broad an array of life experiences as you can imagine. They are Capheus (Aml Ameen), a bus driver in Kenya; Sun (Doona Bae), a businesswoman in Korea; Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a transgender hacker in San Francisco; Kala (Tina Desai), a devout Hindu pharmacist in India; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ living in London; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a safe-cracker in Germany; Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a closeted Mexican movie star; and Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago police officer.

The main plot is an international conspiracy to hunt down and neutralize all sensates, but that overarching story isn’t actually what holds the most interest for me. I care more about the individual stories, how they intersect and how characters with utterly different life experiences are able to understand each other intuitively. Because the main character of the show is really empathy.

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I think empathy is the objective of most art. Roger Ebert once wrote that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” I’d say that TV is no different, and “Sense8” evolved into a literal manifestation of that philosophy. You feel it when Nomi and Lito share the differences and core similarities of their experiences of identity, when Wolfgang awakens latent desires in the sheltered Kala and when Riley and and Capheus share painful childhood memories.

You even feel it during TV’s strangest metaphysical love scene, in which all eight characters are intertangled in each other’s erotic experiences. That scene could have been exploitive or silly — or both — but instead it reinforces the central theme. What’s more empathetic than these characters relating to the pleasure and intimacy of people of differing genders and orientations?

So who should you nominate for Emmys? It’s certainly worthy of consideration for Best Drama, but if your dance card is full, I’d consider writing or directing nominations for the Wachowskis, who created the show and wrote all 12 first-season episodes with J. Michael Straczynski. Of the cast, it’s hard to pick favorites when the characters feel so much like eight parts of a whole (I’m partial to the performances of Ameen, Clayton and Silvestre, but can’t say they’re fundamentally better than their co-stars), so I’ll cheat and recommend a nomination for casting director Carmen Cuba.

I’d be remiss not to mention the work done by the remarkable behind-the-scenes crew. First and foremost are editors Joe Hobeck and Joseph Jett Sally, who blend the ricochetting characters and settings so seamlessly that each episode really does play out as a single fluid motion.

In creating these various vivid settings, cinemtographer John Toll, production designer Hugh Bateup and costumers Lindsay Pugh and Polly Matthies should also be considered.

But whether the show is nominated across the board or just in Creative Arts contests, I just hope it makes an impact somewhere. The biggest disappointment would be for this show about interconnectedness to be cut off entirely.

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Photo credits: “Sense8” by Netflix

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