Another (Spoiler-Free) Thinkpiece About ‘The OA’ on Netflix

In turns both riveting and hokey, Netflix’s new show The OA is unique, and worth the watch, but not for the reasons you may think! Regardless of how you feel about the style or the subject matter chosen by creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, it is an incredible example of utilizing Netflix to subvert television standards. TV and cinema have evolved with the introduction of the internet, but in many ways are still stuck in certain industry standards developed long before digital release. The OA played with those industry standards in a few ways:

With digital release, you don’t have to conform to studio or network guidelines. The OA makes use of that flexibility by playing with timing and structure. There are many examples, but some of the most notable were:

  • It has a 70-minute premiere that reads more as a prologue
  • The premier doesn’t run the title sequence until the third act, most of the way through the episode, to keep from breaking the flow of the story.
  • There is an episode in the series that ends abruptly at almost half the running time of the other episodes, as part of -and in service to- the story.
  • The story moves at a pace all it’s own. It starts with a bang and then slows to a crawl. Then it takes it’s time to warm up. Suddenly it builds momentum and barrels away. (The changes in momentum happen with or without you, and can lead to great binging, but also can leave viewers out in the cold, rather than engaged.)

The show has a trans character played by a trans actor:

  • Right now, visibility is incredibly important. Diversity in media doesn’t just mean having a few POC in your cast. It means changes to the industry to make representation a priority. Changes like hiring black writers, or casting Asians in attractive, commanding leading roles. It means hiring women as directors and DPs, and it means reflecting the character in your casting, by hiring trans actors to play trans characters. Utilizing the medium and the flexibility to cast unknown actors opens the door for more trans, gay, and disabled people to land jobs in the industry for the first time in history.

The ability to go in depth with character and incredible human moments:

  • The show took an incredible amount of time to capture compelling moments that didn’t actively drive the stories. It was able to care more about an intimate moment than keeping momentum.

Meant to be re-watched:

  • Moments in the show that felt like clues or hints weren’t, exactly. It turns out they were the narrative happening without you. The story was told in its timeline, not yours. The dialogue and events that happen earlier in the series are designed to make sense on re-watch. (This is also a negative. The story doesn’t explain a lot of things, or even really give you hints. Sometimes it gives you total red-herrings or takes sudden turns. It can feel alienating.)

Designed to generate online conversation:

  • After every episode, my boyfriend and I looked at each other and tried to figure out if we were “in or out” with the story. After episode one, I was hooked but he was unconvinced. After episode two, I was out, but he was more intrigued. We wanted to talk about it with others. We wanted to read think-pieces. We wanted to analyze it. The show’s creators understanding of media in a world of binge-watching, theory-building, story-dissecting social media is evident. They actively drive IRL debate about the mysteries in the show by weaving viewer analysis into the core of the story itself. (This waffling back and forth, assessing our commitment to the show after every episode also shows how unstable the storytelling felt.)

Relevant to the viewer right now:

  • The whole show is timely, asking questions about the current social climate without being confrontational in a Black Mirror way. It reflects on people greedily diving into the stories of others in the real world. From the Kardashians to screenshots of a text-message breakup of complete strangers going viral on Facebook, we dive headfirst into consuming the stories of real people the same way we consume everything, at first not stopping to question, and then demanding proof or probing for more “content”. It looks at the stories we want people to tell about their own real lives versus what they actually tell us.

No matter how we feel about The OA, there is something wonderful about Netflix having the money and the desire to run the gamut of content styles and types. To go to the creators and say “Give us something weird.” rather than stick with what is succeeding or what is standard. There is also something great about the two who made the show. They are auteurs, aiming not just to make a TV show, but to passionately make the greatest TV show in the world. There are an earnestness and a commitment to the project that makes it compelling. I think it’s also what drew compelling performances from the cast, creating tiny moments of incredible humanity. The earnestness is also its undoing, though. In a world full of irony, things that are supposed to be heartwarming, profound, or eye-opening come across as hamfisted. And the desire to tell the right story in a certain way by these auteurs makes for a lot of holes in the end. There is a lot of deus-ex-machina involved that undermine the core ideals or exist unexplained just to drive the plot. A few characters occur simply to drive the story. Logical leaps that no one would make drive the next action. A few questions are never answered and a few plot-lines that are never resolved.

While I enjoyed watching the show, in the end, it feels unearned. The entire lead up to the last episodes, you sit with the story feeling like it was up to you, the viewer, to wade murky waters and believe what you want to believe. Do you subscribe to the heavy-handed New Ageyness, or do you see it as how humans explain and deal with science they can’t understand? Do you side with the protagonist because you believe her? Do you side with her because you don’t believe her, but understand why she lies? Do you side against her? Is it half real and half fantasy? Rather than being comfortable with being unsolvable, however, the last parts of the show seem to leave you with a black-and-white choice. One ending is right and one ending is wrong, but they don’t say which is which. They leave you this choice, and they do it without the facts, clues, or narrative persuasion to lead the viewer to either decision.

In the end, while I really enjoyed watching the show at the time I was watching it, it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny after the fact.

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