Note: This article contains potential spoilers for The OA.
“For a central part of the critic’s task is to advise us on what to look for, what to listen for, what to read for, in the work under consideration. The critic guides us in our contemplation.” —Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action
If you’ve seen Netflix’s The OA, there’s a good chance you don’t quite know what to make of it. The series is as perplexing as it is compelling (and it looks like we’re in for more). Critics aren’t much help here, either. Opinions on the show range from derisive all the way to rapturous, with little to no room for middle ground. One slender area of consensus does seem to be emerging, though. Most viewers agree that The OA is a bit like an infectious pop tune: It’s hard to get out of your head.
I usually come down somewhere in the middle in these kinds of debates, but I’m throwing caution to the wind this time and declaring myself an unabashed OA fan. Though flawed, I think the show is beautiful, heartbreaking, and deeply hopeful. Just to be clear, this statement is made in a spirit of transparency and should not be read as a critical pronouncement. I don’t want to offer a formal defense of the show, nor do I necessarily want to convince you of its greatness. Instead, I want to help you make your mind up about it. Let this article be your processing space.
A good bit of our popular entertainment prides itself on being strange. Heck, Stranger Things has it in the title. But for all its multidimensional plot lines and exotic creatures, Stranger Things isn’t really all that strange. In fact, I’d argue its main draw is nostalgia rather than morbid curiosity. Most of us can see past its sci-fi and horror trappings and recognize that it’s also an eccentric ’80s period piece. (Consider the heroic lengths to which the producers went to secure the show’s retro inventory.) All in all, Stranger Things is much more about reminiscing than it is about exploring the off-kilter frontiers of the artistically avant-garde.
But The OA is strange in the truest sense of the word. Let’s start with the format. Each episode has a different running time, with some going well over an hour and others clocking in at a meager 30 minutes. The tone is strange. We’re treated to unflinching depictions of violence, raw sexuality, emotional trauma, and grief. We’re also treated to shimmering mystical visions replete with Lisa Frank color schemes and saccharine snatches of quasi-spiritual babble that might have been written by Eckhart Tolle. There’s also dancing… dancing that’s either animalistic and primitive, or goofy and silly, depending on your temperament.
There’s no comic relief from any of this disjointed tension, no ironic side-glances or knowing winks to the audience. Every one of these layers is delivered with a straight face, so to speak.
To make matters worse (or stranger), the show allows for the possibility that many of its more outlandish aspects are nothing more than an elaborate fantasy. Why is that so troublesome? Because these outlandish aspects are not marginalia but central to The OA’s plot. Drop them and the reasonable question becomes, “What did I just spend all these hours watching?” If this isn’t disorienting enough, the ending is the very definition of polarizing, pushing many of the show’s more intrepid viewers over the edge.
The OA is Netflix’s most daring show to date, Sens8’s claim to that title notwithstanding. Regardless of whether you’re a fan, The OA is cause for celebration because it proves the streaming service is willing to take bigger risks than most of its competitors. From the comfort of my living room couch, at least, I detect zero studio interference with the story. Judging from the lavish production values, I think it’s also safe to say the show’s budget matches its creators’ ambition. HBO may no longer be the haven for TV’s most audacious thinkers.
Like most self-respecting fans of the artistically avant-garde, I’m constantly paranoid that the artist in question is having a laugh at my expense. Consider David Lynch. Mulholland Drive shares The OA’s obsession with the blurry line between dreams and reality, as well as the complex interplay between trauma and identity. It also follows a similarly disjointed structure. I love every labyrinthine minute of Lynch’s lush noir riddle, even though I remain unconvinced that said riddle has a solution.
At the time of Mulholland Drive’s release, however, I was afraid to admit this out loud, largely because I wasn’t sure that Lynch and crew hadn’t pulled off an elaborate ruse. I’m still not sure about it, for that matter. Though we rarely mention it, trust is an essential ingredient in our reception of the arts, which is one of the main reasons why many people are so put off by unconventional art. It’s hard to trust the painter, musician, or director when she’s always pulling rugs out from under our feet and possibly snickering backstage when we lose our balance and display genuine emotion.
The postmodern solution to this conundrum is to abolish all sincerity and disappear down a rabbit hole of self-referential irony. The film’s director keeps reminding you that she’s the director, and you can share a laugh, pat yourselves on the back for recognizing the artificial nature of the whole charade, and breathe a sigh of relief for not taking it all too seriously. You may be jaded, hollow, and cynical, but at least you’re not gullible.
But David Lynch is no deconstructionist poseur, and that’s one of the major reasons he’s not a safe artist. Watch an interview with the man. His folksy vocabulary, goofy attire, and nasally voice (which verges on parody) all betray a man who seems inherently guileless. David Lynch is dangerous because he’s sincere. Whether you’re watching Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, or Mulholland Drive, you have to deal with the fact that these films, with all their elliptical twists and turns, were not made in jest. Lynch means them.
From what I can tell, Brit Marling, The OA‘s creator and star, is also a sincere artist who builds worlds she believes in. Though young, she already had an impressive resume before beginning work on the Netflix series. In particular, the film Sound of My Voice — an evocative (and sympathetic) exploration of a charismatic cult leader (portrayed by Marling) — shares The OA’s preoccupation with the unifying power of storytelling, as well as its inherent risks (i.e., dishonesty and manipulation).
Similarly, two of The OA’s most relevant themes concern the surprising ways in which trauma can stretch across cultural dividing lines to unite the most unlikely people, and the dynamic role storytelling plays in this endeavor. In the show’s context, the unlikely group is comprised of four teenagers, a teacher from their high school, and Prairie (“OA” to those of us who believe her), their charismatic storyteller.
Is this group itself a kind of cult? Is Prairie/OA telling the truth? Is she delusional? Or is she something more sinister? The show supplies ample evidence to answer each one of these questions in the affirmative. This ambiguity is one of its main risks. Is there an answer to all of this mystery or are we just watching an empty exercise in self-indulgence? Is Marling laughing at us?
The powerful dynamic that emerges within the group sheds the most light on these questions. Throughout the show’s eight episodes, we see this deeply divided group of people forge an unbreakable bond that will quite literally save numerous lives. In an interview, Marling said:
That’s at the heart of this show. When you strip it all away, it’s really about people in trauma healing each other by talking, listening and making profound friendships they didn’t think were possible. The American Dream has unraveled, but by just showing up and getting together, that’s what will make a change. If we don’t, nothing is going to move forward.
I’d argue this quote is the show’s skeleton key. If you recognize the importance of Marling’s words, you’ll have a better chance of appreciating her vision, animal dancing and all.
Most will recognize that Marling’s words were forged in the crucible of last year; 2016 was a traumatic time for many of us. More than ever, we need to reach across cultural dividing lines to hear each other’s stories, especially from those who don’t share our views, and work together to heal and move forward. I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say that countless lives depend on it. The OA simply and sincerely dramatizes this urgent need, and, for better or worse, the ending is an integral part of that endeavor.
Sentimental, heavy-handed, and melodramatic as The OA may be, I think it’s safe to say that Marling is not laughing at us. I think she’s worthy of our trust. That’s why I believe her when she says there are definitive answers to all the show’s questions. That’s also why I’m excited about the series’ second installment.
The OA is a risky show because it’s a serious show. The first risk, however, involves making your mind up about it.