‘The OA’ May Have Been Canceled, but Few Shows Can Claim the Same Social Impact

Brit Marling's recently canceled Netflix drama has inspired a movement among fans. Looking at the show's singular message, it's easy to see why.

Brit Marling in The OA. Netflix

If you’re a fan of Netflix’s labyrinthine sci-fi drama The OA, odds are you have your own theories about its ever-twisting plot elements—and if you’re a diehard, you may well believe the Reddit-born conspiracy theory that the show’s August 5 cancellation was part of an elaborate publicity stunt. Still, bear with me, and bear with my take on this grand oddity of a TV show, the cancellation of which sparked a #SaveTheOA movement and a Change.org petition that’s garnered 39,000-plus signatures as of this morning.

Part I of The OA first aired in 2016, and introduced us to the formerly blind, formerly missing Prairie Johnson, eventually known as multidimensional traveler The OA, or Original Angel. But as I see it, the events of that season were not unfolding in our world—i.e. this dimension, which contains you, me, Netflix, and the show’s co-creators, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. And we certainly weren’t in our world in Part II, which aired earlier this year and saw The OA, her former captor, and her former fellow captives launched into some alternate version of modern-day San Francisco, replete with a psychic octopus and a haunted puzzle house that pushed the show’s narrative within inches of derailment.

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In Part II’s finale, The OA made one hell of a meta move with The OA jumping into the body of Marling (the actress who plays her) and her former captor/nemesis, Hap, jumping into the body of Jason Isaacs (the actor who plays him). Essentially, despite OA actor Ian Alexander’s claim that this was just yet another dimension, I choose to believe, in retrospect, that these characters finally landed in this world…our world. And what gives me some odd shred of comfort amid the cancellation is that while our world surely needs all of The OA‘s earnest gifts, perhaps it’s not equipped to handle them. Perhaps finally hitting reality was an apt place for it all to end.

In a six-slide Instagram post she released a day after the show was canceled, Marling, addressing OA fans, recalled a time she was on a panel and asked why she was “so obsessed with sci-fi.” She admits her initial bewilderment, then goes on to ruminate: “It’s hard to write stories about the ‘real’ world when you have never felt free in it.” At first, she’s addressing the still-rampant gender inequality in her industry, and how she’s chosen to create worlds of her own, where women like her—and actresses like her—can have true agency. Marling is someone who, as she told Sam Jones on his show Off Camera, began her professional life working for Goldman Sachs, leaving when her soul was so crushed by the job that she had to take a leap and pursue art, with no safety net in sight. Stereotypically speaking, Marling had all the assets to “make it” it as a Hollywood ingénue: a beautiful, blonde young woman with brilliant acting ability. But she didn’t want that identity, nor did she want any of the thankless roles so many such women—or most women, really—are saddled with. So she partnered with friends, put pen to paper, and carved out alternate roads.

But The OA, as Marling acknowledged, did so much more than offer undervalued, otherized, or potentially exploited actors like her a freer and fairer place to work. It represented, in every way, the very best of humanity. It imagined a place free of flippant irony and mass reactionary rage, where people of all walks of life could see past their differences and unite for what they felt in their souls was a common good: a trans Asian-American (Alexander); a gay, brown-skinned overachiever (Brandon Perea); a jock with anger issues (Patrick Gibson); a middle-aged, plus-size teacher (Phyllis Smith); an orphaned depressive (Brendan Meyer); a Cuban guitarist (Paz Vega); a black investigator seeking redemption (Kingsley Ben-Adir); and so on. In our world, these people might avoid each other and lean in to the division of our society, as opposed to hearing each other, practicing empathy, and even joining forces amid danger.

The OA imagined a place where science and spirituality could co-exist, and celebrated humanity’s oneness with the earth. In our world, only one plucky Congresswoman from the Bronx has endeavored to map out a bold plan to combat climate change, and she’s been met with vicious attacks for even making the attempt. The OA imagined a place where trust and true morality had genuine clout and benefits, and where having the bravery to do what’s unpopular comes with reward. Today, in our world, trust is violated daily on a global scale; morality feels scarily out of reach; and regardless of which side of the aisle you stand on, challenging the extremism of your respective mob is grounds for cancellation.

The OA. Netflix

And that brings us to the most crushing difference between our world and the world of The OA: As they always have in their work together, Marling and Batmanglij celebrate the notion of the collective—that no one can or should ever go at it alone, and that, broadly, our common needs will triumph if we unite. Marling said as much in a 2013 convocation speech she delivered at her alma mater, Georgetown University, where she met Batmanglij and fellow filmmaker Mike Cahill as a student, and where she advised graduating seniors to “stick to their tribe,” like she did. But today, in our world, aspects of that notion hold different meaning than they did six years ago, and different meaning than what’s shown in The OA, where people pause, think, listen, and come to find that we’re all more alike than we are different. In real life, where the trickle-down of fear and hate has bled into so many streams, we’re less inclined to listen than we’ve ever been—to the point that we can even feel alienated in what we thought were our own tribes, as personal identities (be they related to gender identity, race, faith, sexual orientation, or class) cause even further subdivisions that blind our greater, common humanity.

And that’s a shame, because there are still many people who listen, respect our intersectional experiences, and see them as vital parts of a whole. Marling listens obsessively. I first interviewed her in 2011, shortly after Another Earth—one of two films that made her a breakout star at Sundance that year—hit theaters. Also present was Cahill, who directed Marling in the leading role, and with whom she co-wrote the script. Another Earth is pretty much just what it sounds like (an exact duplicate of our planet is found), and yes, it’s a sci-fi flick with room for freedom. In a suite of a Philadelphia hotel, Marling and Cahill answered my questions like curious, precocious children, then threw them back at me. “Would you you travel to another Earth?” I asked. “Would you?” Marling responded, the obvious intent being that it’s on each viewer to confront that question.

The interview was cut short, but rather than ending it, Marling invited me to join her and Cahill in a van that was taking them to Philly’s 30th Street Station, so they could make their train. My recorder picked up every road bump, but also every big idea that Marling and Cahill offered up as responses. It was a caravan of existentialism. When we arrived at the station, the pair invited me to continue and follow them in, and while Cahill darted off to presumably sort out the tickets, I kept talking to Marling, who quickly revealed herself to be a near-uncanny mix of wisdom and insatiable teachability. I eventually followed her to the escalator for the train platform—not unlike the one where Hap first finds Prairie in Part I of The OA—and waved goodbye. I’d been given enough material for a short story.

Two years later, I interviewed Marling again, this time with Batmanglij, who directed her in her other 2011 Sundance hit, Sound of My Voice, which she also co-wrote. Our interview, though, was pegged around 2013’s The East, the duo’s second big film together and the first of Marling’s to crack mainstream Hollywood (it got a decent promo push from distributor Fox Searchlight, and co-starred name actors like Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Patricia Clarkson). The movie involved a cult, with Marling playing an undercover operative investigating suspected eco-terrorism. Interviewing Marling and Cahill was one thing, interviewing Marling and Batmanglij was quite another. They finished each other’s sentences. They seemed to share the same brain—like twins who were born conjoined at the head, and were then separated, but retained all of their shared thoughts, ideas, and ideals. They talked about tribalism, and they talked about authenticity, which Batmanglij said is “hard to find.” They talked about living as freegans to prep (meaning they only ate found and discarded food), and about rituals that seem childish and awkward, but in fact break down walls and open doors for human intimacy. (In The East, it’s a game of spin-the-bottle and feeding one another; in The OA, it’s the now famous choreographed “Movements,” which, when done collectively can send someone into another dimension.)

Though hugely impressed and fascinated by the openness, humanity, and seemingly boundless imaginations of Marling, Batmanglij, and Cahill (the latter of whom seems to have since taken his own creative path), I’d always felt that their films weren’t big enough to contain their ideas. In each case, the intent was there, the ingenuity was there, and the honesty was there, but even after discussing the work with the artists, there was still a nagging sense that a two-hour running time isn’t amenable to the scope of Marling and Batmanglij brains, and the art suffered as a result. They needed a bigger, broader platform with more room for giant ideas. They needed a streaming service like Netflix, with hours of time to devote to the masterpiece they’d been building toward: The OA, a sprawling, shockingly audacious multiverse of unbridled storytelling, which still achieves consistent, aching intimacy.

Emory Cohen in The OA. Netflix

At the time of Part II’s release this year, journalist Sophie Gilbert wrote a gorgeous piece for The Atlantic called “The Radical Sincerity of The OA,” and there are really no two words that better pinpoint what made The OA so very special. In our world today, where terror and algorithms encourage closed minds, and a key salve is the onslaught of memes that feed the disease of irony, being sincere is radical. And despite increasing progress, in the grand scheme of the entertainment industry, The OA was like an unwitting protest march of narrative filmmaking. Even with more diverse stories arising, the biz remains safe and greedy. At the movies, we had a Best Picture winner this year with nothing remarkable to offer, and this summer, save a title or two, every tentpole blockbuster is a regurgitation of some pre-established brand. Streaming TV is where change is happening, but nothing can claim more original, fearless vision than The OA. Nothing can claim to have two co-creators that so bravely reached into the recesses of their brains and were ready to face ridicule for how their WTF moments might play out on screen. And nothing can claim that its big, beating heart inspired a movement of literal “Movements,” with fans like dancer Jess Grippo organizing a flash-bob demonstration outside of Trump Tower, and re-creating The OA‘s synchronized choreography as a form of protest.

In the finale of Part II, Karim, the investigator, finally makes his way to the much-discussed “rose window” at the peak of the puzzle house. He is told that looking through it means seeing the truth and he indeed looks through it and finds himself gazing at a Netflix sound stage. Now, granted, The OA was intended to be released in five parts, all of which have reportedly already been written by Marling and Batmanglij. So it wasn’t supposed to end here. But again, what I choose to believe as I look back is that seeing the truth means seeing our world—the real world, where Marling and Isaacs are actors on a set, and where executives likely care more about the bottom line than getting to know the people they’re working with. The OA has spawned legions of fans, meaning there are indeed many people who are hungry for the radical sincerity Marling and Batmanglij offered, but apparently not enough. Netflix is known for wanting its shows to have minimal seasons and maximal viewership.

In the end (if this is indeed the end), The OA offered life lessons through, as Marling puts it, the freeing lens of sci-fi. It was aspirational television of a different sort—not glorifying full closets and luxury yachts, but reminding us all of the value of sitting together, in some unglamorous spot, and listening. “I asked you to believe in impossible things,” The OA says at one point in Part II. And we did. To return the favor, our job now is to put the show’s seemingly impossible, yet very human things into action—here, in our dimension. ‘The OA’ May Have Been Canceled, but Few Shows Can Claim the Same Social Impact