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Brit Marling’s The OA axed by Netflix
courtesy of Netflix

#RenewTheOA: Why The OA needs to stay in our dimension

Brit Marling’s risky, thrilling sci-fi saga with its loving fandom has been unceremoniously axed by Netflix

Time to cancel your Netflix subscription. Yesterday, the streaming service announced that it was abandoning its acclaimed sci-fi series The OA after a mere two seasons. Which is baffling and infuriating. Created by Zal Batmanglij and Brit MarlingThe OA was (past tense!) the kind of artistic experiment that justified Netflix’s existence: it was provocative, unpredictable, strange, spiritual, and staggeringly sincere in ways that could never fly on a network channel. All of which is to say: if you haven’t tweeted #RenewTheOA yet, do it now. And maybe tag @Netflix in, just out of spite.

When The OA launched in 2017, it did so shrouded in secrecy. It was an event. It was exciting. We ran two news articles in three days trying to decipher what the genre-bending show would entail. Marling and Batmanglij did zero press in advance to preserve the mystery. It worked: the episodes dropped on December 16, and by December 18 I was furiously arguing with friends over the finale. It was a conversation-starter and a conversation-ender. I loved The OA with a passion and was already awaiting season two.

The premise is tough to describe. In the first episode, we’re introduced to Prairie (Marling), a woman who’s reunited with her parents after a seven-year absence. As a teenager, Prairie was blind; now as an adult, her eyesight is miraculously restored and she claims to be “The OA”. For her next move, Prairie recruits five friendless strangers and attempts to convince them that by executing a specific set of dance moves (called “The Movements”) they can transport to another dimension. The show wasn’t so much a supernatural caper about bending reality to your will – it was a human story about trauma, overcoming loneliness, and the fantasy of reinventing yourself for a bigger, brighter universe. All the fun sci-fi stuff was a bonus.

Somehow, The OA got progressively weirder. In the second season, for instance, Prairie is nearly strangled to death by the slimy tentacles of a gigantic telekinetic octopus with the power of speech. Because why not? Above all, though, The OA really felt like it was for outsiders – not in a marketable Stranger Things way, but for genuine weirdoes. When Marling finally did interviews at the end of 2017, she told Dazed: “We were always interested in the idea of looking at characters who are on the fringes and don’t feel they have a place.”

Well, Netflix has robbed fans of that place, and discarded The OA against the wishes of millions of viewers. But after Brooklyn Nine-Nine and One Day at a Time were rescued after their cancellations, could a new home be found for The OA? It’s worth trying, either by tweeting #RenewTheOA until your account gets suspended, or by performing The Movements until you jump into the dimension where Netflix has artistic integrity. Anyway, here are the key reasons why The OA needs to be picked up for a third, fourth, and fifth season.


Yes, that’s right – and Netflix knew it. Last year, Cindy Holland, Netflix’s VP of “Original Content”, was full of praise: “The OA is fantastic. I think from the very beginning, when Brit and Zal pitched us a five-season arc, we were really excited and sat at the edge of our seats when they started talking about season two.” That Holland was also the person who announced the cancellation yesterday just adds to the frustration. Think of it as a 40-hour story where you get abruptly kicked out at the 16-hour mark by the Netflix executive who also built up your expectations in the first place. 


In typical fashion for The OA, the second season ended on a note that raised about 50 new questions and made you reassess the 16 hours of storytelling that preceded it. It’s deeply unsatisfying as a series finale. Not in a “oh, did The Sopranos just fade to black?” way, but if The Sopranos ended on a random episode in the middle of season two. It’s unfathomable that the show could wrap with such a bonkers, enraging twist and not expand on it for another 24 episodes. I will not explain what happens, so as to not ruin it for anyone, but it’s the kind of rug-pull that says: “Hey, it’s now impossible to cancel this show!” How dare you, Netflix. How dare you.


The OA followed an unusual approach to storytelling: episodes ranged from 31 to 71 minutes in length, and you were unsure which year or dimension the next one would take place in. These are, of course, choices that would be impossible on network television. But Marling and Batmanglij were even more adventurous in the stories themselves, such as the snapshot of trees conversing via underground roots, the two unexplained minutes in which Homer seems to exist in a different century, or the controversial “guns versus dancing” finale to season one. Polygon deemed the school-shooting sequence to be “problematic, disrespectful and a perfect example of bad television”; Vulture defended that very same scene in an article titled “The Gentle Queerness of Netflix’s The OA”. Whatever you think of The OA, it’s certainly not formulaic. 


The OA is a show, like Twin Peaks, that makes more sense with headphones. It’s a given, really, when Rostam Batmanglij (Zal’s brother) composes your theme tune and scores several episodes. But the role of music extends beyond creating tension and atmosphere – the instrumentals form part of the puzzle, too. Take this subreddit post that wonders: “Are the whooshing sounds a clue?” Or the sincere fan who wishes to share: “(It’s the) kind of music that makes you cry and consider your entire existence.” After all, The OA is also about finding love and hope in a helpless place. But rather than Rihanna, there’s Sharon Van Etten in a supporting role as Rachel, a kidnapped singer whose a capella rendition of her own 2009 album track inspires her fellow prisoners to stay alive for just a little longer.


This is not an ensemble that should be left unwatched in TV limbo. While the cast doesn’t feature as many POCs as, say, She’s Gotta Have It or Tuca & Bertie (both cancelled by Netflix last month – spot the trend?), it’s a diverse female-led series that, in season two, introduced Kingsley Ben-Adir as its new protagonist. Elsewhere, there are too many standouts to mention: Emory Cohen as Prairie’s brainwashed love interest; Jason Isaacs as an eloquent scientist with Bond villain pretensions; and Ian Alexander, an Asian-American transgender teenager whose key role paves the way for trans visibility in the media. (Read our interview with Alexander and the other male actors here.) Then, in cameos, there’s Riz Ahmed, Zendaya, and arthouse cinema legend Irène Jacob. If not a renewal, then what about a Frasier-style spinoff? 


Right now, as I write, The OA is a trending topic on Twitter and fans are outraged. It’s no surprise, really: The OA is the kind of cult mystery-thriller that encourages outlandish theories on minor characters, lengthy breakdowns of screenshots, and just positive fan interactions in general. Moreover, anyone who follows Marling and Batmanglij on Instagram will know that The OA inspires inventiveoctopus-related fan art. Scroll back a few days and fans were nervously plotting the #RenewTheOA hashtag before Netflix’s announcement – that’s how much the show means to people. (Also, how did they know? Did an octopus tell them?) 


In an age where irony is the default mode for human interactions, The OA is especially moving for its earnest depiction of surrogate families across dimensions and how its characters openly felt like outcasts: Buck is a transgender teen who’s rejected by his father; Betty and Jesse are loners grieving over family members; Steve is a tempestuous drug dealer; Alfonso is gay man of colour; and Prairie, by waking up as Nina, suffers from the ultimate existential crisis. “A lot of things in [Prairie’s] story seem wild or far out but end up being metaphors for what the boys and their teacher feel in their ordinary lives,” Marling told Dazed. “I think everybody from time to time feels held captive or locked in by how people see them or by their school, job or gender.”

So Marling and Batmanglij, who also happen to be a woman and a gay man of colour in Hollywood, crack the code of depicting isolation in long-form TV. It isn’t to do with monologues, narrative twists or backstories; it’s in the subtleties of the storytelling, the pauses, the perspectives, the desperation in the faces of the gang as they attempt to track down a specific second-hand mirror in the Andrew Haigh-directed episodes. Then when technology addiction enters the narrative in season two, it turns topical: some people are so lonely that the only comfort they find is through a screen. 


As a fellow Dazed writer articulately put it last week, TV and movies are “an opportunity to make sense of the world in a way that straight reportage can’t.” In a heartbreaking Instagram post last night, Marling thanked viewers for their support but offered a few thoughts on why her films and The OA touched on sci-fi: “It’s hard to be inspired to write stories about the ‘real’ world when you have never felt free in it. As a woman writing characters for myself and other women, it has often felt to me as if the paved roads for travel in narrative are limited.”

Later in the post, she adds: “We imagined that the trees of San Francisco and a giant pacific octopus had voices we could understand and ought to listen to. We imagined humans as one species among many and not necessarily the wisest or most evolved. We imagined movements that got unlikely people in rooms together, got them moving, got them willing to risk vulnerability for the chance to step into another world. That is what The OA has been for Zal and I and every other artist who joined us. The chance to step into another world and feel free in it.”