‘Sense8’ has been cancelled by Netflix, but fans aren’t letting it go quietly.
When Netflix pronounced Sense8 cancelled after two seasons, viewers were stunned. Some questioned if the move was made to legitimize Netflix in its role as a — if not the — major provider of television in the transition from network television to online streaming services. Out with the old and in with the new, now on the internet.
What Netflix may not have expected but definitely should have: massive outrage.
Sense8, created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), is the unique story of eight people scattered around the globe with a unique mental link allowing them to speak to each other, borrow each other’s skills, and experience each other’s lives. The characters embody empathy to their cores, something fans believe television — and the world — needs more of.
The show goes beyond the idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — it highlights the experiences of groups often ignored in the media. Viewers see the struggle of a gay actor who must choose between his successful career and living in the open (not to mention that he is a Spanish film superstar, someone English speakers normally wouldn’t be aware of). Another link: a trans woman who lives with her supportive girlfriend but also under the looming shadow of her parent’s disdain.
Next an African bus driver who battles for social justice in his community where price-gouging for water is the norm. Add to that a Korean woman whose needs always came second to those of her brother, the heir-apparent to their father’s company in spite of his ineptitude. Then an Indian woman who faces religious discrimination for her Hindu beliefs (even from her own husband’s family). Round that out with an Icelandic woman who starts out looking like a drug-abusing ne’er-do-well before viewers learn she lost her husband and newborn in a tragic accident and is living with PTSD.
Add one cop whose father is struggling with alcoholism, and a German man trying to survive in his family’s world of crime and violence… The diversity is quite apparent.
Sense8 being cancelled ends not just one unsung narrative; it ends eight. This is why fans have launched a petition to urge Netflix to renew the show — these stories aren’t over and, more importantly, the groups of people they represent deserve to have their own existences acknowledged.
Netflix has since responded to fans via Twitter, stating that after careful deliberation they stand by their decision to cancel the show. Something about a media giant like Netflix saying they can’t continue the most globally diverse show on television isn’t sitting well with fans. Their response: we won’t go quietly.
Four of the eight main characters of Sense8 represent racial minorities — an African man, a Korean woman, an Indian woman and a Mexican man. This is groundbreaking, as minority actors and actresses face a well-known disadvantage competing for leading roles in the U.S. market. When Aziz Ansari wrote an article for the New York Times on the diversity problem in Hollywood, he pointed out his own experience of learning that the first Indian actor he’d seen in a film was really a white man in brownface. He also cites a 2013 study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA that found only 19.3% of lead roles in cable TV went to minority actors.
So when Netflix cancels a show that is at least 50:50 (which is still not full representation), people are understandably upset.
Sense8 gave Aziz Ansari and millions of other Indian-Americans an actual Indian actress playing an actual Indian woman. Kala, portrayed by Tina Desai, faced some of the problems people in India really face. It shouldn’t be so earth-shattering, yet it is.
The same can be said for Miguel Ángel Silvestre’s character Lito but with an additional facet: Lito is Mexican, and he is also gay. His story shows viewers the heartbreak of coming out as a gay man in a society where that isn’t considered acceptable. Viewers watch Lito struggle to hide his sexuality, knowing it will impact and perhaps even destroy his career. It is painful, but through the pain shines his love for Hernando, their friendship with Daniela, and the acceptance of his mother. Lito rises from the agony of realizing that living in the open brings limitations to his career, to leading a pride parade.
Speaking of which, multiple critics of Netflix’s decision to pull Sense8 from its lineup have pointed out that making the announcement on Thursday, June 1 — the first day of Pride Month — was in poor taste on the network’s part.
Bae Doona’s character, Sun, is yet another unique presence on the show. She is a South Korean woman who, in spite of her hard work, ends up sacrificing everything to help her brother. Why? Because, at the end of the day, he’s her father’s son, and she is just his daughter.
The narrative reads a little like a Korean drama — albeit with drastically different cinematography — and Bae Doona is, like Tina Desai and Miguel Ángel Silvestre, a true representative of the women whose stories she embodies. Once again, this sounds intuitive but actually isn’t. Asian-American actors and actresses have fought for visibility. The fight has been taken up by Constance Wu, star of ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, and widely recognized stars like George Takei, with one message: We deserve to be seen.
That “we” is not just one actor or actress but a race of people who should be telling and representing their own stories.
The New York Times quotes Wu, explaining that avoiding tokenism — that too-little-too-late approach to “fixing” the representation problem in television by giving everyone a minority friend — is to “have more than one.”
Sense8 went beyond that. Sure, of the eight leads, four are still white. But behind each character is their own story. Sense8 gives you not a “token Korean character” — it gives a Korean narrative and an Indian narrative and a Mexican narrative…
And a Kenyan narrative, led by Aml Ameen and Toby Onwumere as Capheus in seasons one and two, respectively. Through Capheus, viewers see the struggles of living with AIDS in Africa, where medications are scarce, expensive and of questionable quality. Season two includes a dramatic scene in which crowds of people are outraged by the spike in water cost.
These four stand beside Nomi Marks, portrayed by Jamie Clayton, who adds further diversity to the cast. Nomi is a trans woman trying to lead a normal life in spite of her parents’ disapproval. Clayton, a trans woman herself, has praised the show’s creators for making Nomi a full person. “They’ve given Nomi this lover and this identity,” Clayton pointed out in her interview with the Toronto Sun, explaining that shows often handle trans characters by making them loners — because it is easier than trying to show that they can be loved.
The final three characters represent less obvious elements of diversity. Tuppence Middleton’s character Riley Blue has a backstory of devastating loss — she held her newborn child as she froze to death after a car accident. Heartbreak led to her problems with drugs. Hers is the story of mental illness, which explains her instant connection with Brian Smith’s character, Will Gorski. He grew up with a father who suffered from alcoholism, and in a way his ability to help another person cope with their addictions makes him a superhero. That is above and beyond his cop intuition.
The final character is Wolfgang, played by Max Riemelt, who is something of a chaotic neutral compared to the other characters. His would be the story of redemption, if an audience ever had the chance to see it play out.
Sense8 pushed the boundaries of what TV characters look like and the stories they tell. It was progressive by leaps and bounds, and the choice to remove it from Netflix’s lineup is a blow to that progress.