There’s a moment on Netflix’s unexpectedly cancelled original sci-fi series, Sense8, which captures the spirit of the show. If you were to watch that one scene, you’d be hard pressed not to feel the same about Sense8’s cancellation as I do. In it, Lito, a closeted gay man and a Mexican movie star, grapples with coming out for fear of losing his career. He sits blankly staring at a piece of art when, Nomi, a transgender woman from San Francisco, joins him thanks to the telepathic connection she shares with the character and six others like him across the world. Nomi recounts a tragic instance from her adolescence where she was violently bullied in a locker room for being trans. She explains how her father encouraged her to be part of a swim club since it made him “the man that he was.”
“That locker room might have made my father the man that he is, but it also made me the woman that I am,” she says in a truly tear-jerking sequence. “After that, I quit trying to fit in, trying to be one of them. I knew I never would be, but more importantly, I didn’t want to be,” Nomi says. “Their violence was petty and ignorant, but ultimately it was true to who they were. The real violence, the violence that I realised was unforgivable, is the violence that we do to ourselves when we are too afraid to be who we really are.”
It’s moments like these that encompass the entirety of two seasons that follow the lives of eight “sensates” across eight different countries. Jamie Clayton, who is transgender herself, plays Nomi. This shouldn’t be a landmark feat given the time we live in, but it is, since rarely do trans actors play trans roles. Even rarer is a story that focuses on the trans character’s life, sexuality, relationships, job, talents and not merely the fact that they are trans.
Other plot points are cinematic rarities too. Kala is a conservative but intelligent scientist living in Mumbai, India. She is in love with another sensate, Wolfgang, who lives in Germany. Most of the characters have never met in real life but are connected through their strange psychic abilities. That’s another key characteristic to the show: connection; It extends beyond boundaries imposed by race, culture, sex, religion, politics, or sexuality – a necessary message at a time where divisive politicians pit us against each other for being Mexican, European, gay, Muslim, or trans. Sense8 renders those stereotypes null and void.
Kala and Wolfgang’s relationship displays an important and authentic interracial dynamic absent from mainstream cinema or television, which caters to the cisgendered heterosexual white mass. As a woman of colour who isn’t American or European, this was an essential arc to the show that I truly connected with, as did millions of others who frequently feel unrepresented. Do television and film producers automatically assume that viewers of their show are strictly white and straight? Or are they too busy patting themselves on the back for “including” stereotypical caricatures of gay characters that only provide sassy one-liners or immigrants who speak in ridiculous and unreal accents?
“Do producers automatically assume that viewers of their show are strictly white and straight? Or are they too busy patting themselves on the back for ‘including’ stereotypical caricatures or immigrants who speak in ridiculous accents?”
Sense8 answers these questions in an inspiring sequence where several of the characters simultaneously wonder “who” they are. “Are you a homosexual?” a tabloid reporter asks of Lito. She says she’s just trying to “understand,” to which a heated Lito and Nomi respond, “You’re not trying to understand anything, because labels are the opposite of understanding.”
“I guess who I am is exactly the same as you are. Not better than, not less than,” the sensates reply unanimously.
I’ll admit that Sense8 had its faults. It was confusing at times, with its complex plot and multiple storylines. It was also sometimes navel-gazing in its representation of the LGBTQ community and people of colour. But it was clear and honest in the way that mattered – the way that connected with so many dedicated fans. Yes, fans – the ones producers claim don’t exist, even though Netflix reps reportedly told J. Michael Straczynski, who co-created the series, that viewers often watched the first season “straight through – three, four, six times.”
It represented real people who despite differences were similar in the ways human beings are, but forget. It’s why fans are now furiously campaigning for a third season. It’s nearly reached half a million signatures.
Many have speculated due to the globe-spanning premise of the show and “limited viewership”, the series wasn’t financially viable. Netflix doesn’t release viewership data, but given that season two ended on a cliffhanger with all the characters ending up in one place, the argument makes less sense.
And I, like much of the show’s other fans, am truly heartbroken. Not just because it’s a great loss of diverse storytelling, but because it’s proof that while commercial hits but mind-numbing critical failures like 13 Reasons Why get renewed, shows such as Sense8 and The Get Down (which was also cancelled) that attempted to break through the millions of clichéd stories that flood our screens will remain invisible because diversity is “expensive.”
Sign a Change.org petition to save Sense8 here.
Follow Jeena Sharma on Twitter here @itsmejeena