There is a lot to unpack about this show since it explores minority communities across so many cultures, races and sexual orientations. The story describes a telepathic connection between several people across the globe in Nairobi, San Francisco, India, Korea, London, Germany, and more. The people are initially unaware of their connection until they suddenly start experiencing each other’s emotions. Their phenomenon is called “limbic resonance”. This allows the audience to see inside the individual’s personal lives and witness firsthand their battles with societal standards as they try to fight for who they really are. Among other groundbreaking TV shows like Orange is the New Black and basically anything by Shonda Rhimes, this is by-far the most progressive and global (literally) since it accurately depicts other cultures instead of subscribing to stereotypical inaccurate accents, settings and cultural norms.
*Since there are so many characters (all with equally important stories) I will be focusing on just a few for the purpose of this entry, as I will be revisiting other characters when the show returns.
Nomi is a trans white woman living in San Francisco with her girlfriend at the time she starts experiencing limbic resonance. Early on it is shown that she has transphobic parents who refuse to recognize her identity as female and yet forcefully embed themselves in her life for the purpose of “rehabilitating” her back to a heteronormative state. We witness her struggle with her parents when Nomi ends up in critical care after she suddenly faints while riding a motorcycle. When she wakes up, her mother greets her by calling her “Michael” and continually referring to her with masculine pronouns while berating her for riding a motorcycle. She learns that her loss of consciousness was caused by a cancerous growth on her frontal lobe which her doctor says can cause changes in identity, obviously referring to her transition. She is told she will have to have surgery to remove the tissue otherwise it will metastasize leading to certain death in six months, which is tactfully put by her mother. Eventually she realizes something isn’t right when she is being locked in her room as part of “hospital policy” and they refuse to let her see her girlfriend. She decides she wants to be discharged and does not want the surgery. It is when her nurse informs her that her family already signed off on papers for her surgery that she comes to the conclusion that the doctor is essentially trying to lobotomize her to rid her of her gender dysphoria.
Kala is a recent college graduate living in Mumbai, India and at the start of her story, we learn that she agrees to marry a man she does not love to keep her parents happy and uphold the traditional custom of arranged marriage that is prevalent in India. Although she is never forced to marry the man by her parents, Kala recalls seeing the look of pure joy on her father’s face when she tells him that Rajan, a successful and kind man, proposed to her, and that she was not able to say no. She recalls that her father was “dancing around the house, even happier than when I got my degree”. This is to underscore the notion that Indian culture prioritizes a girl’s marriage over her education. While this is still a serious problem in some parts of India, it is a dangerous thing to depict that every Indian household feels this way because ironically, you end up perpetuating the stereotype instead of condemning it by focusing on a more original depiction of India where a female protagonist can focus on her career/education with no mention of marriage. (Which, *gasp* is the case for many desi girls I assure you). In fact, having an Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi girl appear in western media is almost mutually inclusive with the topic of arranged marriage, and that is a sad fact. Even in an otherwise brilliant show like Sense 8 that involve complex, dynamic personalities from a host of cultures, the “poor desi girl being forced into an arranged marriage” trope does not surrender. And ironically, I think this is not merely the fault of a racist writer on the Sense8 team (how could it be when the other characters have no such flaws against their cultural portrayal?) but this is actually because of the age-old white savior syndrome that plagues well-meaning white people. I’ll explain. Later in the story, Kala gets closer with the white, german character, Wolfgang and eventually they fall in love with each other despite Kala still being engaged to someone else. Now most movies go full-on white savior by portraying the man she is betrothed to as a villain who deserves what he’s getting. Sense8 is thankfully more complex than that and the man Kala is engaged to is actually very good to her which is why she hasn’t called off the wedding. But still, this is classic “white man rescuing the damsel from the horribly mysoginistic third world country” routine, that has just been repackaged with a bow on top.
All in all, does the use of a tired, semi-offensive trope condemn the whole show? Of course not, sense 8 is still fiercely revolutionary in its depiction of trans issues and its dedicated, accurate portrayal of six different cultures.However, by the end of the season it turns into every other show on tv since the 50s; having its main couple be two white people that the story somehow starts to revolve around (albeit the girl is icelandic) and everyone else as background, it’s not the game-changer it seemed to be in the first half of the season. Final verdict: brilliant..ish.