The New Religion of The OA
The OA has gotta be one of the most polarizing shows ever. People either love it or despise it. I am decidedly in the first camp and even more so after watching Season 2.
This is going to be rather an odd review-ish type thingamadoodle because I don’t want to give away ANYTHING about the show, and I implore you not to go read any reviews of it, either. Because The OA utterly defies reviewing and knowing too much going in on will only diminish your experience of the show. You should know as little as possible.
This trailer doesn’t give much away, though.
Season 1 of The OA was for me, absolutely compelling. My husband and I turned it on on a whim one rainy afternoon, and ended up watching the entire thing very nearly straight through with only a few hours of sleep in the middle somewhere. When we came out the other side we looked at each other, awestruck, and said at the same time “How can there be a Season 2?” But there is, and somehow, the second season makes the first season make sense, which if you watched the first season you will know that’s no small feat.
The thing about The OA is it’s one of those shows that just shouldn’t work. It’s quirky and weird -- and I don’t mean in an acceptably, adorably quirky Northern Exposure kind of way, either. This is a legitimately bizarre show, out there beyond the moon, the stars, and Twin Peaks, and almost never ever does anything you expect. The only time it ever does what you expect is when you thought it was going to do something else instead, leaving you scratching your head in surprise that it went someplace so utterly predictable.
The world of The OA is both thoroughly mundane, but at the same time like nothing that you’ve ever seen before. Yet it is not, and I swear to you this is the case regardless of what you’ve heard elsewhere, it is not a show that is weird for the sake of being weird. The weirdness of The OA is organic, natural. It’s weird in the way that the universe is weird, that our bodies are weird and that the largest organism on Planet Earth is a giant fungus that measures 2 ½ miles across is weird. Much has been made of the “interpretive dance” element of The OA, but if you stop to think about it, is it so unusual angels might communicate with dance? After all, bees do. Many species of animals dance to attract their mates and every human culture around the world dances. Why wouldn’t angels dance?
Just roll with the weirdness, it works if you let it.
The OA is wonderfully diverse in about every way you can possibly imagine without being at all heavy-handed with it. I never felt like anyone was ticking off a box on the “diversity checklist”. Every character needed to be there and their stories were told with respect and compassion, and never fetishized. Additionally, the female leads are not conventionally attractive (while star Brit Marling is certainly beautiful, she’s not glamorized at all and spends most of the time without makeup) and the male romantic lead is a chubby, average-looking guy named Homer. It’s SO NICE to see real-looking people on tv existing in a beautifully diverse world. I loved it.
Season 2 of The OA was very slightly microscopically less compelling for me, especially at the beginning. That very well may have been more because we were not able to binge watch it like we had the first season, and not due to anything lacking in Season 2. (My husband said Season 2 was better.) This is a show that tells a complex story with lots of plot points and characters to keep straight, so set aside the time to watch it uninterrupted, as close to straight through as you can. Don’t do an episode here and there when you’re on your phone at the same time. Set everything else aside and immerse yourself in this bizarre and inexplicable tale.
And the end of Season 2 was…hmm. How to say it?
Some have called the end of Season 2 of The OA a gimmick. A Shyamalan-style twist ending. And I understand why they say that just like I understand why some people hated Season 1 of The OA. But I loved it and I’m gonna try to tell you why without revealing anything that’s behind the curtain, because again, even if you’re like me and hate surprises and you always read the end of the book first, this time, I promise, you don’t want to know what’s coming.
I don’t think I’m alone in looking at the world and at life and wondering “is this all there is”? I’d say it is part and parcel of the human condition to wonder if there’s something more. The OA is not at all unique in considering this question, but there is something unique in the way it seems to be answering it.
For such an idea-heavy show, it isn’t off-puttingly intellectual; for such a spiritual show, it doesn’t concern itself overmuch with imparting moral lessons. It’s just a strange little story about some people doing some stuff. The only morality present just seems to be to love each other, to be kind because everyone is fighting a hard battle, and even the villain (he is truly a villain, no question) is presented with surprising sympathy. Redemption appears possible in this universe; one of the main characters starts off as a bully who becomes a hero, another main character betrays someone terribly -- truly terribly, not a generic Hollywood betrayal -- but had reasons for doing so and is later forgiven.
The OA doesn’t seem to think it’s in any way above our pop culture culture; in fact it embraces the notion as many of us have embraced pop culture itself. The OA presents a vision of a world where things are definitely far more than they seem, but without condescension about the world we inhabit, without superiority, without judgement. We are not presented with a utopian vision, we aren’t given an object lesson about how flawed and awful we all are. While The OA is certainly a parable, it doesn’t seem to be coming from wiser and more highly evolved beings designed to teach us an important lesson. I found it peculiarly refreshing to imagine I was catching a glimpse of a world beyond this world without the underlying sense of “humanity is terrible and the modern world is dreadful and everything you personally value and enjoy is crappy and lame and corrupted and liking it indicates you are a terrible person too” that so often (if not virtually always) accompanies spirituality-themed fiction.
One time I read someone talking to a teenager about why they liked Star Trek and they said something like “It’s nice to see a vision of the future where everything isn’t dystopian and terrible, you know, like a place you might want to actually live someday.” And that’s how I felt watching The OA. The OA presented the possibility of an existence beyond our reality, without pissing on this reality and what I love about it in the process.
It’s almost like witnessing the birth of a new religion. Here’s a truck stop, instead of St. Peter’s. Is the former really any less holy than the latter?
I’m not saying The OA is deliberately presenting a viable religious concept of what existence beyond this world might look like, but if it was, it’s a religion that fits me, Thoroughly Modern Millie, who grew up parked in front of a TV set and cried harder when Buffy died than when my grandparents did (don’t judge, they lived 3000 miles away and I barely knew them) a whole lot better than some of the other options presently available.
After The Matrix came out, there were some people who got their heads spun around by it (occasionally with violent results). And I can understand why. What if the world we live in really isn’t what it appears? What if it’s more? What if we could learn the truth if only we could wake up, if only we could solve the puzzle? What if we hate it here and we could get to a different world if only we knew how? What if we’re even in pain or in danger in this world and we could escape to another, better place? It’s a really compelling vision. I can easily see The OA having that effect on people. Just like The Matrix, The OA provides a modern answer to an ancient question that seems a much better fit for some of us than the answers we’ve been told for so long should be enough.
I think you should watch this show. I am not promising you’re going to like it. I’m saying you should watch it because I think it’s important. For me, watching The OA was like reading The Little Prince or The Lady or the Tiger or Sophie’s World. All along I had the sense that I was encountering something very special that was going to change the way I experienced the world and when the bombshell finally came at the end of the second season…well, for me, it did not disappoint.
Again, you very well may not care for The OA at all. You may find it trite or silly; some have, and I can understand why. You may find it offputting that the show’s creator, Brit Marling, has in written herself a starring role in which she is a superhuman, supernatural being (some could even call it Mary Sue in the very truest sense). But for those who like unpacking their fiction like a set of Russian nesting dolls, The OA offers a unique experience.
You may not find the destination worth the journey like I did, but I still urge you to watch The OA. If for no other reason than so I am no longer the only person walking around muttering “Do you understand the implications of casting Jason Issacs and Vincent Kartheiser in this show?!? Do you understand what this MEANS???”
Because The OA is making some pretty crazy implications.