With 60 million international subscribers and a programme-making budget of about $3bn, Netflix is steamrolling most of the received wisdom about how we make and watch television. Already riding high on the success of prestigious hits like House of Cards and Daredevil, Netflix is expecting to bust new barriers with Sense8, whose 12 episodes became available to view today.
The big news is that Sense8 marks the TV debut of Andy and Lana Wachowski, the enigmatic creators of the blockbusting Matrix movies, though riding a little less high of late following equivocal reactions to Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. The multiple storylines and global reach of Sense8 inevitably bring to mind the similarly expansive structure of Cloud Atlas, though the show's serial format does at least ensure that the urge to sprawl is kept under some kind of control.
The Post-it Note description of Sense8 is that it concerns eight individuals dotted around the world – San Francisco, Mumbai, Seoul, London, Berlin etc – who share some kind of biological or telepathic bond. This is referred to in the title of the opening episode, 'Limbic Resonance', which (as a repellent London drug dealer played by Joseph Mawle explains) describes the way molecules in the human nervous system can produce shared states of empathy and emotion.
However, the 'sensates' have no need of Mawle's drug stash to achieve this state, because they form their own shared neural network, which enables them to enter (or, it appears, simply be flung into) each other's consciousness wherever they may be. If you find yourself reminded of Oughties sci-fi show Heroes, you're on the right track. Thus, when one of the protagonists – a boy in Nairobi who runs his own ramshackle bus service called Van Damn – is being beaten up by a gang of local bandits, he receives transcontinental assistance from Sun, a Korean kickboxer, whose martial skills are instantly transferred to the baking Kenyan sun.
The resonances often take more subtle forms, helping to knit together the varied strands of the saga. Characters may glance in a mirror and see another sensate staring back, or a scene involving one character will cross-bleed into another thousands of miles away. Wolfgang, a Berlin safecracker, found himself subliminally linked to the upcoming wedding of Mumbai bride Kala by a sudden yearning for Indian food. In another synchronous moment, London-based club DJ Riley (a peroxided Tuppence Middleton) was listening to music in her headphones when she inadvertently intercepted the clicking sounds of the lock on the safe full of diamonds Wolfgang was trying to open.
Where it will end perhaps nobody can say, though we know that dark forces are trying to hunt down our unusually gifted heroes. For instance Nomi, a transgender woman in San Francisco, thought she already had enough emotional problems to contend with even before she found herself incarcerated on a locked hospital ward where a sinister brain surgeon proposed to lobotomise her. We know, too, that the sensates were all somehow born from a woman called Angelica (Daryl Hannah). Episode one opens with a harrowing scene of Angelica in a derelict Chicago church, grappling with the agonising burden Fate (or whatever) has dropped on her before shooting herself. Still, this doesn't prevent her from recurring, clad in spectral white, in the sensates' dreams and visions. In any case, this is the kind of programme where nobody is ever 100 per cent dead.
Sometimes (not least in its opulent, polyglot, Life on Earth-style opening sequence), Sense8 feels a bit too much like a blatant grab for for every conceivable worldwide audience segment, from any mixture of race or religion to all known sexual orientations in any corner of any continent. Of course, the Wachowskis want to teach the world to sing from their transcendental hymn-sheet, and Netflix will be making every effort to ensure that they succeed.