The opening credits of the new Netflix series “Sense8” are like watching “The Amazing Race” on acid.
Slick time-lapse shots of traffic in various cities are spliced with exotic footage of street markets in India and South Korea. We see zebras in a grassy plain in Africa, colorful Day of the Dead skeletons in Mexico, erupting volcanoes and London’s Houses of Parliament. A civilized game of cricket contrasts with rowdy fans outside Wrigley Field. A rainbow spans an Icelandic waterfall. A rainbow flag flies above a couple of men sharing an ice cream cone in San Francisco.
It’s a compelling barrage of disparate images whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The same can be said of “Sense8,” an ambitious, gorgeous, imperfect series that’s unlike anything on television.
Technically, it’s not even on television. It comes from the video streaming service Netflix, which, in true Netflix fashion, drops the entire dozen episodes all at once Friday. Given the highly binge-able nature of this sometimes-inscrutable series, it’s a good fit.
Created by the sci-fi-minded team of J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”) and the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix”), “Sense8” marks the television debut of Andy and Lana Wachowski after a few stumbles at the box office with “Cloud Atlas” (2012) and the widely maligned “Jupiter Ascending” (2015).
Both films were criticized for having an abundance of ambition without the goods to back it up. I’ve seen the first three episodes of “Sense8” made available to the press and I’ll admit, there’s potential here to repeat the reach-exceeding-grasp mistake. But this high-energy drama is so visually stunning and populated with enough interesting characters to make me want to go along for the ride, even if I don’t have the foggiest idea where we’re headed.
This big swing of a series starts with a distraught Daryl Hannah in an abandoned church in Chicago. I don’t want to give away what happens next except to say that this mysterious character named Angel goes through the painful motions of child birth, basically spawning eight adult “sensates” — strangers in eight different cities who are suddenly able to connect with each other’s thoughts, actions and emotions.
This would be a good time to mention that the series was shot on location in nine cities: Berlin, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, Reykjavik, San Francisco, Seoul and the Wachowskis’ hometown, Chicago. (A South Side scene in the series premiere has a Chicago police officer calling a particularly crime-ridden area Chiraq, the controversial title of an upcoming Spike Lee film that hasn’t sat well with some local politicians.)
Let me repeat: Filming took place on location in nine cities. Logistically, this is the opposite of easy — or cheap — especially when you throw in scenes shot during San Francisco’s Pride celebration and India’s Ganesha Festival. The pay off is huge from a cinematography standpoint. Director of photography John Toll has given “Sense8” a sense of place rivaled by few shows on television. Visual effects supervisor Dan Glass deserves a shout out, too.
Despite being separated by thousands of miles, the “sensate” characters have the ability to see, hear, feel and communicate as if they’re in the same place.
When Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a criminal who cracks safes in Berlin, has an inexplicable urge for Indian food, his craving can be traced back to Kala (Tina Desai), a pharmacist in Mumbai who’s about to marry a man she doesn’t love.
Riley, an Icelandic DJ living in London (Tuppence Middleton), inexplicably finds herself on the South Side of Chicago, talking to an equally confused and earnest cop, Will (Brian J. Smith).
The martial arts acumen of a Seoul banking executive named Sun (Doona Bae) comes in handy when another sensate, Capheus (Aml Ameen), needs to get AIDS medicine to his mother in a Nairobi slum.
Rounding out the pack of eight are Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a closeted telenovela star in Mexico City, and Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a San Francisco transgender blogger whose identity is threatened on multiple levels.
“Not only must these eight adapt to this new ability and to each other, they must figure out why and what it means for the future of humanity, while being hunted by an organization out to capture, kill or vivisect them,” read the press notes.
All that’s clear after three episodes is that a vague, nefarious cabal is out to get them.
“Lost” alum Naveen Andrews plays a shadowy man who appears to be on the sensates’ side, whatever that is.
So, yes, the plot begs plenty of questions. In that respect, “Sense8” reminds me of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” minus the bleakness and boredom.
Another demerit: the dialogue can be clunky, especially when used as a shortcut for narrative exposition.
The long list of positives includes a willingness to address gender, identity and sexuality in a way you don’t often see on TV, and even less so in the realm of sci-fi.
But what really draws me — an avid traveler — to “Sense8” is the over-arching theme of global connectivity, how we can look so different and live such different lives in our separate corners of the world but when it comes down to it, we’re very much the same. We all have our demons, and we all want to be loved and accepted, to feel like we belong.
I know that sounds hokey. And at times, so is “Sense8.”
But doesn’t it also sound beautiful? So is “Sense8.”
Rating: (4 / 5)
* Since the Wachowskis come from Chicago, it was an easy decision to make it a setting for “Sense8,” according to Straczynski. One of the siblings’ favorite eateries, Superdawg, is featured in the premiere, even though it makes no geographic sense that a couple of cops patrolling the South Side would grab lunch all the way up in Norwood Park. Uptown’s legendary jazz club, Green Mill, pops up in the second episode, as does the obligatory car chase under the L tracks — albeit this one with a mind-bending twist. And that creepy, abandoned church in Chicago where we first meet Daryl Hannah’s character? That’s actually City Methodist Church in nearby Gary, Indiana (h/t @filming_chicago). One final note: If the police district headquarters look familiar, that’s because it’s the same one used in NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and the “Hill Street Blues” intro. The Chicago Police Department’s former Maxwell Street station is now home to the University of Illinois at Chicago cops — and film crews.
Netflix released a trippy new “Sense8” trailer Thursday. Check it out below.