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How The OA Stopped Being Special and Started Being Great Pop TV

With its second season, the enigmatic Netflix series sacrificed a lot of what made it such a rarefied gift of a show. In return, it became can’t-miss TV.
  • Brit Marling as Nina on season 2 of The OA
    Brit Marling as Nina on season 2 of The OA

    In the 27 months that stretched out between the first season of The OA — which dropped on Netflix a week before Christmas 2016 — and its return on March 22, there was a lot of idle wondering as to how co-creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij would manage to extend their universe past the first season’s open-ended (yet, in many ways, beautifully resolved) finale. There was also some hand-wringing over whether the series’ themes and outrageous plot twists were meant to carry the weight of a multi-season arc. But after two-plus years, there wasn’t really a rabid anticipation for new episodes. It was a cult show whose fans seemed really satisfied with the show that they got, and anything beyond that was seen as, at best, gravy, and at worst, an opportunity for the entire house of cards to tumble.

    Now, after the TV press and most of the early-pouncers have devoured the 8-episode second season, two things are true: 1) The OA isn’t quite the same breathtakingly special piece of art it was in its first season; but 2) anticipation for further episodes is at an all-time high.

    Speaking as a TV critic, the first season of The OA was one of the rare truly unique TV experiences I’ve ever had. On its surface, it’s a decently typics mystery story: a young woman (Marling) shows up after having been missing for many years, and whereas she’d been blind at the time of her disappearance, now she can see. She’s also referring to herself as “The OA,” and she’s gathering a circle of high-school boys (and one teacher, played by Phyllis from The Office) in order to accomplish … some unfinished business of hers. But from that more-or-less typical beginning, The OA spread its story ever-further outward, flashing back to OA’s childhood in Russia, how she lost her sight in a near-death experience, how that experience drew her into the orbit of a research scientist named Hap (Jason Isaacs) who then abducted her and held her captive along with four others, all near-death survivors, so he could experiment on them, bringing them over and over again to the brink of death only to pull them back again, with the goal of knowing what lies beyond. The five captives, however, each brought something back from the brink: physical movements that, when combined, would open up a door to new dimensions.

    In the present storyline, the inner lives and torments of her circle of young men were fleshed out in unexpected and empathetic ways. At the season’s end, the flashback story had grown thrilling and fantastical, with the line between science and the supernatural blurred beyond recognition. Hap’s prisoners, through the constant , while in the present day, the all-too-real spectacle of a school shooting descended. It was there that all the divergent paths of this season came together in one great leap of faith on the part of both the characters on-screen and the creators off-screen. The risk paid off big time, with the boys (and Phyllis) performing the Movements without fear or self-consciousness, staring down their own demise, and ultimately delivering a TV moment that, in its sincerity, dared to be both corny and unhinged.

    The end of The OA season 1 was divisive, but it was also a bold and uncompromising vision of beauty in the face of flat cynicism. It proudly displayed its beating heart in a way that I could only compare to the Wachowskis’ Sense8, another Netflix series that teased an interconnected mystery but truly delivered on its emotional wallop of a finale.

    Just the mere fact of returning for a second season — and as a result, closing the loop on that open-ended finale — makes the whole of The OA a bit less special. It would have been worse if season 2 had been bad, but it’s not bad. It is, in many ways, more thrilling, maddening, and compelling than season 2. The mysteries of the universe continue to expand, as you might expect for a show working in multiple dimensions. If you loved The OA for its willingness to go to the edge of ridiculousness to advance its plot, then season 2 will not disappoint.

    And there are even moments of soul-stirring emotion in season 2 that evoke that season 1 finale, including a whispering soul tree (just go with it) and one utterly devastating plot twist. But there’s no denying that in its second season, The OA downshifts into the realm of all the other TV shows. Even if it’s among the great ones currently airing.

    Which ultimately may not be such a bad thing, considering that, what it loses in big, bold, defiant displays of heart and modern dance, The OA has instead developed the kind of twisty plot where audiences simply must find out what happens next. If the season 1 finale was a plausible grace note for the series to go out on, season 2’s finale is a baffling cliffhanger that leaves more questions than answers. After unraveling a haunted house mystery that included everything from a telepathic octopus to a shadowy, Elon Musk-esque tech overlord, OA and her (surviving) friends pull off the movements once again, and in the season’s closing moments, they end up in a meta-twisty dimension where OA goes by “Brit Marling” and Hap goes by “Jason Isaacs.” And suddenly, while I’d have been so happy to let The OA end forever after one deeply special season, I’m not prepared to murder loved ones to find out what happens in season 3.

    In other words: The OA is no longer high art. Instead, it’s just a highly compelling binge-watch of a TV show that had better not think it can wait another 27 months between seasons. You could say we’ve lost something special. Or you could say we’ve merely switched the show’s path from one dimension to another.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The OA, Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij