What Makes ‘Sense8’ The Best LGBT TV Show
Sense8, the Wachowski sisters’ Netflix TV show about eight psychically-linked strangers, features a standout compendium of beautifully written, and rounded, LGBT characters.
Two years ago, I watched the first episode of Sense8.
That was the first time I ever saw a love that looks like mine onscreen.
One of the eight psychically-linked strangers in the Wachowski-led Netflix science fiction series is a young transgender woman named Nomi (Jamie Clayton) whose cisgender partner Amanita (Freema Agyeman) is smart, playful, and fiercely protective.
For me and my own cisgender partner, watching Nomi and Amanita holding hands as they walked through the park was like looking in a very flattering mirror. I felt not just represented but seen by a television show in a way I had never experienced before.
I told actress Jamie Clayton as much last week during a conversation about Sense8’s second season, which will be available Friday, May 5. Clayton didn’t know back in 2015 just how moving “Nomanita”—as the fans call them—would be for viewers like me.
“I had never seen a couple like this [on TV] before so I knew that we were doing something special,” she told me. “What I didn’t realize, though, is how deeply it would resonate. What you just said to me—that moved me. I feel what you’re saying, which I didn’t realize was going to happen.”
But it’s only fitting that a show about the power of empathy would foster such instant connections. Nor is it surprising that a series co-created by the Wachowski sisters, both of whom are transgender themselves—and decorated with the 2016 GLAAD award for outstanding drama—would continue to be the best show with LGBT themes on TV.
In its second season, the eight strangers—known as “sensates”—have several months of telepathic intimacy under their belts. They can feel each other’s feelings, psychically “visit” each other’s homes all across the globe from Nairobi to Iceland, and even briefly inhabit each other’s bodies.
Together, they are warding off a shadowy villain named Whispers and running from a group called the Biologic Preservation Organization that wants to capture the whole “cluster” of sensates for some nefarious purpose.
To be honest, I still have a hard time following the plot. But like many queer fans, I fell in love with the show because it has two of the best LGBT characters on television: Nomi and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a gay telenovela star living in Mexico City who came out of the closet at the end of the first season to save his relationship with his boyfriend Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and his “beard” Daniela (Erendira Ibarra).
In season two, Lito must cope with the consequences of being out on his once promising action movie career. He has to move out of his apartment building where hateful bigots have spray-painted anti-gay slurs on the walls and navigate his delicate agent-actor relationship. But even as he struggles to find work, Lito finds freedom in being out.
“I think the most beautiful thing is that Lito’s mind starts to be in sync with his desire, and that’s when we get to see the best from him,” Silvestre told me. “The best of a human being is when there’s no violence between who you want to be and who you really are.”
It’s a stark contrast from last season which found a still-closeted Lito on the brink of suicide as he contemplated a mural in the Diego Rivera Museum. In that standout scene, Nomi psychically “visited” him for the first time. Lito told her about his first kiss with Hernando in that museum and Nomi opened up to him in kind about being bullied as a child before transition.
“The real violence—the violence that I realize was unforgivable—is the violence that we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are,” Nomi advised him.
The pair of characters—one cisgender gay man and one transgender lesbian—held hands across two countries, locked eyes, and cried. Slate rightly called it a “display of raw heartbreak and queer solidarity” and “the show’s best queer scene by far.”
Season two delivers even more of these powerful queer moments involving Nomi, Amanita, Lito, Daniela, and Hernando.
Without spoiling which of them happen to which character and why, they include: scenes shot at the five-million strong LGBT pride celebration in São Paulo, Brazil; a queer recreation of the iconic beach lovemaking scene in From Here to Eternity; a wedding in which a character’s queerness opens up old familial rifts; and a delightful cameo appearance by Marc Jacobs. Across all of them, Sense8 uses its science fiction premise to literalize the power of love and acceptance.
I suggested to Clayton that the world would be a kinder place for LGBT people and other marginalized groups if everyone could be supernatural “sensates” who feel each other’s emotions firsthand and “visit” each other’s lives. She politely corrected my reasoning.
“I don’t think that we need to actually experience what other people are experiencing to have empathy,” Clayton told me. ‘What I think people are missing in the real world is the ability to look at what someone else is going through and relate it to something that’s happened in your life to find empathy within yourself.”
She continued: “I think that it’s people’s unwillingness to want to relate, it’s [their] unwillingness to want to feel, it’s their unwillingness to want to look at someone else and see themselves reflected in that person because it’s unfamiliar.”
Sense8 itself has set an example by building real-life empathy among a global cast of actors, all of whom bring vastly differing life experiences to their roles.
Silvestre, who hails from Spain, thinks about the contrast between the anti-LGBT violence of the Franco years and the country’s current atmosphere of acceptance as he portrays Lito’s struggle in Mexico. (The actor also draws inspiration from the Lorca play Blood Wedding and its message—as he beautifully paraphrased it to me—that “when love and desire get into your gut, nobody can take it away.”)
But as a straight cisgender man, Silvestre has learned much from the Wachowskis and from his co-star Clayton, who is also transgender.
“I can see how happy Jamie is and I said, ‘Sister, Jamie, how can you be that happy?’” Silvestre recalled. “And she told me, ‘Because I am so happy with who I am, Miguel, and I finally got to live this.’”
That earnest connection between the cast is on full display during the São Paulo LGBT pride celebration scene, landing about halfway through the new season and featuring all of the “sensates.”
In front of millions of actual partygoers, a liberated Lito shouts, “I am a gay man!” in a short speech, kissing Hernando just as the sun breaks through the clouds. “Even the sun came out that day,” Silvestre joked.
The scene feels real in part because the crowd reactions are authentic. Silvestre told me that Lana Wachowski instructed him to deliver the speech on the parade float when the cameras were hidden from the crowd.
“People didn’t know for sure if it was me or if it was Lito, if we were shooting or not, but I got to deliver such beautiful lines that Lana wrote for me,” he said. “It was so beautiful to see the reaction of the people and how generous they were. What you guys are going to get to see [in the finished episode] is the first take.”
After the speech, Lana reportedly gathered all of the “sensate” actors together and told them, as Silvestre recalled: “Have fun. Celebrate your freedom. Celebrate who you are no matter what you are. Today is a day of celebration. I’m going to be taking images; you just have to have fun.”
In the shimmering scene that follows, Sense8 offers a vision of a world in which we are no longer be “so scared of difference,” as Clayton phrased it. In a pulsing montage of incredible on-location party footage, we see not just Nomi but Clayton, not just Lito but Silvestre, not just characters but people, all dancing and laughing and crowd-surfing.
“That was an incredible experience mixing reality and fiction,” Silvestre recalled.
Indeed, for many LGBT viewers like myself, Sense8 renders that border between fiction and reality beautifully blurry.