TV, Interrupted: Sense8's Globe-Trotting Sci-Fi Adventure Was Cut Short

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

The tricky thing about opening your heart up to a TV series is the looming threat of a swift cancelation. This is made a million times worse when said series makes the effort to bare its soul and in doing so, reveals something hopeful, imaginative, and refreshingly new — something gloriously weird, and inevitably doomed to live on as a niche show, eliding the attention of a mainstream audience. Such was the case of "Sense8," a wonderfully woven sci-fi tale that garnered a dedicated fanbase, but still couldn't fend off the sharp ax of cancelation.

Despite my unyielding love for this series making me immensely biased, it's not hard to understand its unfortunate fate. "Sense8" is a difficult series to recommend — believe me, I've been trying for years. Any show that comes with the caveat of "give it half a season to find its groove" tends to make people hesitant, binge model be damned. The thing about this high-concept sci-fi series is that it has little interest in handholding or cutting to the chase. When it comes to showing its hand or even just explaining its premise, "Sense8" is a bit of a slow-burn. It spends time dropping hints and cryptic clues, laying the groundwork for something greater which it would, unfortunately, never get to be. But so long as you sit back, relax, shut down your need for answers and embrace fun, the show will win you over with ease. In fact, let me not bury the lede here — the creatives behind this show have more than earned enough goodwill to take their time telling a story: "Sense8" comes from Lilly and Lana Wachowski, the minds behind the very sci-fi movie that once blew the world's collective mind, "The Matrix."

This is a Wachowski production through and through, as exemplified by its unwavering weirdness. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but it doesn't take a business suit or a fancy exec resume to know the obvious: if the creators of "The Matrix" want $9 million an episode to make their mind-blowing, high concept sci-fi series, and you happen to be a streaming giant with enough spare cash to make that happen, then you should probably go all in. And to its credit, Netflix did just that by granting us 2 seasons of those brilliant Wachowski minds running rampant. 

But as you already know, this story doesn't get a happy ending because in the end, the genre-defying, globe-trotting journey would meet an abrupt end — long before its creators originally intended.

Why Sense8 was great

Where to begin? Legitimately, how do I start proclaiming the well-deserved love for a show with a whopping eight main characters?! Here are the basics: "Sense8" follows eight people, scattered across the globe, whose lives begin to intertwine when they discover they share a mental link. Revealed to be a cluster of "Sensates," these eight strangers become intimately acquainted over the course of the first season, able to share their thoughts, skills, and experiences with the others — often without even meaning to. But once they do get the hang of it, they're free to, say, call in the resident martial arts expert or pharmacist who's also capable of making bombs to get them out of tight situations. And as any sci-fi saga worth its weirdness knows, you can't have a group of unique individuals without a shady government agency desperately trying to dissect their brains. So in the midst of dealing with their everyday life issues and juggling their new abilities, they've also got a life-threatening conspiracy to worry about.

Ultimately, "Sense8" was always gonna be an uphill battle. Despite a premise that screams sci-fi conspiracy thriller, the show isn't necessarily interested in its flashier selling points. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of flash! The series is visually extraordinary, a welcome change from the dull tones of prestige TV. "Sense8" is dripping in saturation and sunlit orange hues. Plus, its globetrotting premise jumps continents between scenes, delving into each locale's beauty. Then there's the daring choreography of each and every action scene, of which there are plenty. But when it comes to the story, everything else is pushed aside for the sake of character.

Now here's where things get really fun. The ensemble cast includes: Nomi, a trans "hacktivist" whose unusual brain activity catches government attention; Sun, an underground Korean kickboxer in the midst of a corporate scandal; Lito, a closeted actor in Mexico city, torn between his movie star career and revealing his sexuality; Capheus, a Nairobi bus driver working to pay for his mother's medication; Kala, a religious Indian pharmacist engaged to a man she doesn't really love; Wolfgang, a German thief with a boatload of trauma and a soft spot for singing competitions; Will, a Chicago police officer grappling with his sense of justice; and Riley, an Icelandic D.J. hiding a tragic past.

In telling each of their stories, "Sense8" defies the possibility of being fit into a single genre box: sure, at its core this is a sci-fi series, but between scenes, it jumps from a tale of corporate espionage to a hacker-tinged love story between two women to crime drama about a renegade cop to a romantic tale of balancing sexuality and fame. One minute we're biting our nails as a safecracker tries to steal diamonds on a tight deadline, the next we're holding back tears as two characters contemplate humanity in an art museum. Not quite your speed? Just give it another couple of minutes — you'll get to watch a woman clad only in gogo shorts go full Terminator, flipping cars and riding a motorcycle, to hunt a man down and solidify his death. This is the thrill of "Sense8" — it can be so gloriously nebulous. Through it all, the show is consistently bold, kinetic, and heartfelt, grappling with everything from homophobia and transphobia to poverty and class tensions.

When I insinuated that you may not care about some of these story threads, I was joking: the magic of "Sense8" is that you absolutely will. Because that's kind of the point. Each of these characters is on their own individual journey but thanks to the newfound psychic link, they're no longer alone. Through their crises, despite vastly different life experiences, they revel in their company. At its core, "Sense8" is about opening yourself up to the joy and pain of empathy. The villain of the saga is literally a walking manifestation of inhumanity, so hellbent on killing his own that he's dubbed "The Cannibal" by other sensates. He's so resistant to feeling for others that he takes pleasure in making them suffer. And what can our sensates possibly use to defeat him? Their connection, of course. Teamwork. Perseverance. The power of love. All that lame hero stuff, but with bazookas and inclusivity.

Why Sense8 was canceled

To this day, the Netflix Twitter account still receives replies calling for a "Sense8" revival or berating the streamer for ending the series in the first place — so it may surprise you to learn that viewership played a major role in the show's cancelation. It's a complicated matter to dissect because, as we all know, Netflix has never been particularly forthcoming with its numbers. There's no telling how many subscribers actually tuned in, but there's plenty of reason to believe that Netflix found that number underwhelming. Of the series, Netflix vice president Cindy Holland told RadioTimes:

"At some point, if you don't have the viewership showing up to justify the expense of the series, you're going to want to end it."

If viewership is one-half of the explanation, then the expense is the other. "Sense8" was mighty ambitious, with costs including filming on location in over a dozen countries and special effects good enough to make the sensate body-switching look seamless. For comparison, the show was estimated to cost around $9 million an episode at a time when one of the biggest series in the world, HBO's "Game of Thrones," was averaging around $6 million an episode (via Polygon). But while Thrones was known for garnering a massive audience, the numbers for "Sense8" didn't justify the cost.

As you can imagine, the cancelation was not well-received by fans who began pointing out Netflix's culpability in the show's low viewership. The marketing was heavily criticized for being relatively non-existent; in typical Netflix fashion, the series would make the banner on the day of release then get swept away by the barrage of other new content. As for what did circulate, its possible the lack audience had something to do with how inaccurately the show was presented (the first trailer for "Sense8" presents an action-packed sci-fi thriller likely to confuse anyone who turns on the first few episodes of the series). Others pointed to Netflix's tendency to cancel shows after just two or three seasons, an effort to avoid increased financing obligations for the streamer. But none of this changed the fact that, two seasons in, "Sense8" had met an untimely death.

Unfinished business

At the end of season 2, the unfinished business of "Sense8" was abundant. Originally Lilly and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski had outlined a five-season plan; naturally, this meant there was no reason for season 2 to end in a neat little bow. After all, there was much more to come. So the second season ended on a major cliffhanger instead, which sees one of the sensates in grave danger while the other seven gather (for the first time!) for an epic rescue. It seems to be the makings of a season-long storyline — and that's just the start. Beyond the primary cluster, the world of "Sense8" had just begun to expand. The lore was unfolding, introducing other clusters, digging into the shady corporation, BPO, and exploring ways to defeat the nefarious Cannibal. So when Netflix announced the cancelation, the rage was intense — fans needed closure. And in a shocking turn of events, Netflix decided to oblige.

Within a month of canceling the show, Netflix announced that while it would not be renewed for a third season, "Sense8" would receive a two-hour special to wrap up the story. While this plan was exactly the kind of bone the fandom needed, it was initially received with skepticism from series co-creator Lana Wachowski. By this point, Lilly had stepped away for personal reasons, with plans to return in future seasons. Since those never came to be, Lana continued at the helm. She was hesitant to agree to the two-hour special due to the grand nature of the remaining story, but the outpouring of fan love convinced her. Petitions and vocal revival campaigns caught everyone's attention and led to an open letter from Lana which read, "Improbably, unforeseeably, your love has brought 'Sense8' back to life."

Because of this wrap-up film, there isn't a terrible amount of unfinished business to unpack — at least, not in the traditional sense. The special gave the writers a chance to tie up any loose threads and give answers for the cliffhangers. Basically, fans got an abridged version of the three seasons once expected to come next — so in a way, all the business is finished. But it's hard not to wonder how it would've been dealt with in a world where "Sense8" got renewed. Don't get me wrong, the "Sense8" special is a miracle and a work of art. Not many shows come back from the dead, but "Sense8" managed a grand return. But it breezed through questions that would've otherwise spanned the series and wrapped up threads clearly mean to be more complex.

The finale works as a love letter to the fans; a welcome but not exactly logical conclusion to the events of the show. It highlights all the elements that made the series great, gives fans the scene they've been long awaiting, and wraps up stories that couldn't remain unresolved. Hell, it even ends with a giant sensate orgy set to classical music! (This sounds a lot less strange if you've seen the show) But not before solving all the little problems with a laugh and a wink. Consequences for broken laws? Charges are magically dropped. How will the show deal with the homophobic parents? Pot brownie solves all. What about resolving the major love triangle? Make it a throuple. "Sense8" loved its fans too much to leave them hanging. The only unfinished business is the lingering question of what could've been.

Will Sense8 ever return?

"Sense8" fans already got our Hail Mary. The final episode special was imperfect, but managed to wrap up what would've been a multi-season plot in the short span of two hours. There's certainly more story to tell in this vast world — the cluster may have taken down The Cannibal, but he wasn't the sole threat to sensates. And even if they're no longer hunted, what of their everyday drama? What of the romances? 

This show could easily persist — it could even use the original series as a jumping off point, and bring us into the wider world of sensates with an entirely new cluster. But the possibility of this actually happening seems low. The same problems remain: "Sense8" is incredibly expensive to make, and the audience may not be large enough to justify the cost. But according to the series creator, anything is possible. Lana Wachowski left the door open just a little with her open letter to fans. On the subject of continuing after the special, she wrote: "If this experience has taught me anything, you NEVER know."