Out of the Celluloid Closet

Will We Ever Get Another Queer Show Like “Sense8”?

When we think of iconic scenes from science fiction shows, our first association is usually something set in space. Something with impressive technology, or futuristic costuming, or death-defying action sequences.

But sometimes, it’s just karaoke. Specifically eight strangers, telepathically linked, sharing one massive, psychic singalong, as 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” — one of those songs it’s nearly impossible not to sing along to — plays over a global panorama of characters, settings, and interconnected plot lines.

“Sense8,” created by J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis, was a (heartbreakingly) short-lived Netflix series that centered on a “cluster” of eight unrelated people who found themselves suddenly connected via consciousness. They could feel each other’s emotions, their physical sensations, could “visit” psychically no matter how physically far apart they were, and share abilities. 

They also happened to be pursued by a powerful shadow corporation intent on lobotomizing them and figuring out how to use their brains to permanently eliminate the sub-species homo sensorium, AKA “Sensates.” 

Describing a show like “Sense8” is next to impossible. There’s enough science at the core of its plot to set it firmly enough in the sci-fi genre, but that’s where things started to fall apart. After the series ended, one postmortem review summed up the challenge of explaining how to even begin to recommend the show to a friend: “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.”

Or, to put it a bit more simply: a “Queer, stylish, emotional sci-fi/action/romance/adventure weirdo of a show.”

It wasn’t perfect — but it was absolutely, unapologetically, one-of-a-kind. And since the finale aired four years ago, we’ve never seen anything like it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to.

An Unapologetic Love Letter to Queer Community

From the outset, Sense8 put queerness front and center. Not quiet, palatable, Nice Gay Characters, but queerness. One of the most iconic and lingering images from the pilot is a bright rainbow dildo, visibly wet, in the scene where we meet one of the main characters. “​​I don’t think I have to tell you how revolutionary it is to show an interracial lesbian couple, where one of the women is trans, fucking on a mainstream TV show,” one reviewer wrote for Autostraddle. And it only got queerer from there: the show featured multiple group sex scenes, aggressively shut down homophobic and transphobic characters, liberally embraced fluid sexuality and non-monogamy, and a proud defiance of societal rules about what constitutes a relationship, a family, and a person worthy of love.

And wow, did some reviewers hate that! Per one Netflix commenter: “[h]eavy push for the [g]ay agenda. I don’t mind gay characters. I just wish I could watch a good show without being constantly reminded of the writers political agenda.” Play me the smallest violin, babe, but as far as I’m concerned, “heavy push for the gay agenda” is exactly what makes me hit “play.”

“Sense8’s” queerness gave a representation that went beyond “this is a character with my identity” — it brought an intimacy to that representation in a way that most sci-fi doesn’t. “Sense8″ was a show about radical empathy and human connection that happened to have a plot with plenty of action and explosions and intrigue, but it’s not, at its core, an action show

Sense8’s queerness gave a representation that went beyond “this is a character with my identity” — it brought an intimacy to that representation in a way that most sci-fi doesn’t

As fun and flashy as those scenes are (and really, they are — there’s a reason the show cost $9 million per episode to make) it’s the quiet character moments that made it shine. It’s a character who has been publicly outed, his sex life thrown in his face as he attempts to teach a university lecture, quietly telling his students that he sees the photos not as a source of shame, but as a piece of art — and that art is “love made public.” 

It’s a trans woman telling a gay man: “The real violence, the violence I realized was unforgivable, is the violence we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.” (A moment that Slate called a “display of raw heartbreak and queer solidarity” and “the show’s best queer scene by far” — correct on both counts.)

It brought an intimacy to that representation in a way that most sci-fi doesn’t.

It’s a quiet confession, from a character who has lost a spouse and a child and struggles with depression and suicidality: “Sometimes I look in the mirror, and I don’t know who I am.”

“’Sense8″ just wants us to care about one another,” Sonia Rao wrote for the Washington Post. In a genre like science fiction, which traditionally focuses on broad, sweeping messages of universal truths and new ways of connecting fiction and philosophy, this small, quiet core is much more personal. It’s about empathy, and vulnerability, and opening yourself up to the mortifying ordeal of being known.

That’s why fans loved it — and it was probably part of why we lost it.

Saving Sense8 and the Legacy of Fan-Powered Change

A month after the release of season two, Netflix announced that “Sense8” was coming to an end. With the season ending on a massive cliffhanger, the fan outcry about the cancellation was immediate and intense (and Netflix making the announcement on the first day of Pride month certainly didn’t help.)

Within days, a #SaveSense8 petition went up on Change.org that garnered over 523,000 signatures. Netflix cited the cost of production as the main factor, claiming that the show’s audience wasn’t large enough to justify the $9 million cost per episode, and that while the outpouring of fan support was lovely, it still wasn’t going to save the show.

Except that, apparently—and a little remarkably—it did. Two days before the end of Pride month, showrunner Lana Wachowski announced that the show wouldn’t be getting a third season but there would be a two-hour finale episode. 

Improbably, unforeseeably, your love has brought Sense8 back to life,” Wachowski wrote.

Fittingly for a show like “Sense8,” the finale itself got mixed reviews. There were a lot of loose ends to tie up — the story had originally been planned to span five seasons, so fitting all the open plot lines into one two-hour special was a hell of an undertaking, and not an entirely successful one. But the special made up for any lack of cohesion by living up to what made the show so entrancing in the first place: putting characters, relationships, and, ultimately, the love for its fans first, and everything else second. The AV Club called it “equally beautiful and incoherent,” while /Film noted that when it came to the “small world” plot lines, things got a bit of a handwave: “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.”  

Autostraddle’s finale reviewer took the slightly more literal approach of, “[it’s] as everyone just sort of said let’s do what we do well and fuck the rest, resulting in an episode that comprehensively captures what made fans passionate enough to rally for this conclusion in the first place.” Essentially: some plot, but mostly vibes, and the vibes were great.

It wasn’t a perfect finale or a total victory, but at its core, it did what it set out to do. Everyone we loved lived, everyone we hated didn’t, and the show ended with an absolute celebration of connected, resilient queer joy.

Filling the Void — or Not.

Sense8 got a hard-won ending, but it still ended — and in the four years since, there’s yet to be a show that filled quite the same niche. “Sense8 defies the possibility of being fit into a single genre box,” Shania Russell wrote for TV, Interrupted, a /Film column focusing on beloved shows that were canceled too soon. “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.”

Unfortunately for fans, the nebulous connection Sense8 had to genre and trope is part of what has made it so difficult to replace. While there have always been varying degrees of queerness in sci-fi, the nebulous, occasionally genre-defying way that Sense8 handled its storytelling, characters, and sense of time and place put it in a category of its own. Harder sci-fi and fantasy shows like Star Trek: Discovery and The Magicians have the genre markers for plot and diversity, but lack the real-world connections that helped fans relate to the characters. They miss out on the “ordinary” problems, like dealing with being deadnamed at your sister’s wedding, that found their way into the larger plot — but also on the ordinary delights, as well, like an unexpected singalong or dancing in your apartment after your first trip to Pride. 

None of this is to say, for the record, that the show was in any way perfect in its handling of plot or representation. Despite the diversity in the casting and storytelling, Sense8 took plenty of entirely fair hits for the way it handled intersectionality, took wrong turns into racist tropes, and leaned way too hard into white savior narratives. Like many sci-fi shows, “Sense8” imagined a future free of institutional and systemic violence, but didn’t put in the work for it — it needed to better on many, many fronts.

On the flip side, contemporary shows are making incredible strides in diverse representation (both in character and in casting) and shows that mix drama, comedy, and action are easier to find, but the psychic connection that catalyzed “Sense8’s” plot and relationships and was key to so much of its tension is difficult to replicate without a sci-fi or fantasy element. 

There’s another key piece to the puzzle in understanding why the media void “Sense8” left has been so impossible to fill. The show was, in both obvious and subtle ways, an incredibly political piece of television. Characters talked frankly about making fake IDs for trans people when the government made it too hard to get them. More than one statement was made about chaos versus order and choosing to work against the system, not within it, when the system was the problem. 

In today’s landscape, full of TERF rhetoric, “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and the apparently unending flood of anti-LGBTQ bills aimed at schools, media, libraries, health care, and just about anything else you can think of, it seems impossible to imagine a show like “Sense8” ever getting a green light. “Sense8” took aim at every institution that reactionary, conservative media holds dear, from the gender binary to marriage. That gleaming rainbow dildo that showed up in the pilot and made more than one subsequent appearance? Not a chance.

And even if a successor to “Sense8’s” unapologetically queer, category-defying storytelling did appear, where would it air? Netflix, which had been gaining a reputation for fostering queer media when “Sense8” was originally released, has gotten increasing backlash for pivoting to support transphobic celebrity voices, and recently came under scrutiny for allegedly firing “its whole queer social media team” in the latest round of contractor layoffs. (Even if the entire queer social team wasn’t fired, queer people and people of color still made up the bulk of the most recent firings, according to People of Color in Tech.) Disney would rather go bankrupt than put its name on anything queerer than its eighty-seventh “first real LGBTQ representation!” moment that’s really a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unnamed character smooch featuring a cranky leering slug, and while HBO just made waves with queer representation on “Our Flag Means Death,” a show like “Sense8” is a far cry from what’s still a relatively tame piece of gay television. 

But that doesn’t mean writers won’t stop trying. Queer showrunners are nothing if not resilient and determined — and the final shot of “Sense8’s” hard-won, love-letter-to-fans finale, of that same gleaming rainbow dildo, was nothing if not a challenge to its successor. 

So we might deserve another show like Sense8 — but will we ever get one?♦

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