The OA is Netflix’s lastest binge-worthy series. A few episodes in I’m still not sure what the show is about. Is it science fiction? Is it an emotional drama about loss and memory and trauma? Is it a redemption story about healing and the power of stories? A meditation on near death experiences? Maybe it is all of these things. One of the early moments sets the stage powerfully as the main character Prairie/the OA (played by Brit Marling) tells her tale to five roguish allies:
The biggest mistake I made was believing that if I cast a beautiful net, I’d catch only beautiful things.
I’ve written about ugliness before in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and The OA seems to operate on a similar mechanism — seduction by beautiful but horrible things. The obvious parallels to the previous Netflix binge-event, Stranger Things, are clear. The world is not what we think it is. Its pleasures and pains are more than mysterious; they are inscrutable. We could follow Nietzsche and Schopenhauer by framing this as the revival of the chaotic Dionysian against the failures of Apollonian order. It feels only too obvious that so much of television today features worlds on the edge. We are fighting over the loss of simplicity in the face of complexity.
During my latest Twitterstorm while attending the Religious Literacy Project’s symposium on journalism at Harvard Divinity School’s, a disagreement over this point emerged between Stephen Prothero, Jeff Sharlet, and Eddie Gluade.
Prothero argued that one of the reasons for Trump’s success in the 2016 election was his ability to craft simple, effective stories that appealed to his audience. Jeff Sharlet also made this point forcefully, recounting the way Trump told stories on the stump with all the rhetorical flourish audiences expect from a tent revival preacher. (Sharlet’s amazing piece on Trump as preacher is required reading on the election.) It is in this context that Eddie Glaude threw the red flag: Folks love Game of Thrones, don’t they? Prothero argued for simple stories. Sharlet demonstrated how Trump exercised that simplicity in language and emotion. But Glaude’s retort was that audiences in America love complex stories, too. To love these complex stories, though, they have to be told with simple sentences.
The OA sits comfortably at the intersection of these impulses: 1) The story seems driven by the impulse that while awful things are awful, they are also seductively beautiful. 2) Prairie tells her story with simple sentences, but her story isn’t simple. In fact, it’s riddled with uncertainty and doubts and mysteries. She tells her story from the perspective of her diminishing ignorance about her trauma and who she has become. Every sentence of her story works to reduce her own confusion and build our knowledge about her experiences. This is the hallmark of mystery-writing, right? We inhabit the detective’s mindset because together we unravel the crime. The characters themselves are not sure what the end will be until they experience it, which makes them prone to mistakes of just the sort that The OA/Prairie makes at the outset: When we cast beautiful nets we don’t always catch beautiful things.
This is quite different than the kind of television that has been popular for so long on the big networks. Several of my family members love Law & Order: SVU (as a substitute for sleep medicine I think), but I have always found the show disappointing. We never have the pieces to the puzzles we need. We are not equal partners in crime-solving. We are merely observers of the often fumbling and futile attempts to navigate our nation’s criminal justice system.
While I have enjoyed The OA so far, I’m worried that the show will end up less as a story in the mystery genre and more as a kind of police procedural. Have we (both audience and Prairie) been given all the pieces we need to solve the puzzle so far? Westworld was intense and amazing precisely because it gave away all the information audiences needed early in the first season. Some astute viewers caught on and unraveled the plot, but many others had to wait until the show led them to its inevitably violent end. A few episode into The OA and I’m not sure which set of genre rules govern the story. If it is science fiction, we may not like the answers we get. If it is drama, we will have to wait for answers. If it is mystery, then perhaps we have the clues already and don’t recognize them. No matter what so much seems laid bare for us already: an exploration of the significance of death, the challenge of memory, the power of stories, and the urge to reject simplicity in favor of complexity.