I look forward to a TV series that finds a redemptive metaphor for our spiritual rot. I truly do. We need it. Ideally, it'll be a bit of philosophical jiu-jitsu so penetrating and dramatically effective that it will neither require the viewer to politely ignore enormous plot holes nor condemn her to reading Reddit threads into the wee hours as she tries to piece together what just happened with other confused and hungry souls.
The OA is not that series.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's new sci-fi mystery for Netflix follows a traumatized blind woman (played by Marling) who returns home after going missing for seven years able to see. The stories she tells a ragtag group of misfits about what happened to her — and her near death experiences — are riveting. That's in part because they're beautifully shot and carefully told, and seem to be building to something: to an epiphany, a revelation, or a truth about how everything works that we very much want to hear. Then the worrying talk of angels begins, and the even more worrying talk of dimensions. Then came Borges. (I love Borges, but a Borges reference can be a very bad sign in a story that looks like it's lost its way.) Still, Marling musters enough gravitas to keep you watching. Maybe she'll pull this off.
Nope. Instead of completing its story, the series short-circuits in its last chapter. Not only does it dance around its central question, refusing to ground or explain anything, but it also demolishes the delicate system it constructed, which — for all its claims to transcendent depth — was nowhere near robust or substantive enough to inspire anything but frustration. You have to be Borges to make ambiguity for its own sake satisfying. This was not that.
But The OA's specific shortcomings are symptomatic of this particular moment in television — and of the cultural anxieties shaping the current crop of meta, self-analyzing TV shows whose philosophical systems don't quite pan out. I'm not talking about The Americans, which hits its every mark perfectly without pausing to preach to you. I'm talking about Westworld and True Detective and Mr. Robot, about Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Shows in which characters deliver soliloquys that are supposed to bleed over and impress the viewer with their insight. Genre shows that double as thought experiments. Something is up when virtually every ambitious attempt to wed a philosophical investigation to a fiddly plot crashes in the final act. Those shows have a few things in common, and The OA might not be very good, but it's an interesting synthesis of tropes that cropped up across a bunch of meta dramas this year.
Here's a partial list of what The OA shares with other shows:
- Nosebleed prophet (Stranger Things)
- Die and come back = acquire special abilities? (Westworld, maybe Game of Thrones)
- Magic girl gets group of oddballs to follow her (Stranger Things). Bonus: hilarious montage where boys have to dress girl up in conventional femininity.
- Human hamster cages (Orphan Black, Mr. Robot)
- Family: creepy? (Mr. Robot, Orphan Black)
- Spiritual training makes woman blind and un-blind (mechanics and purpose unclear) (Game of Thrones)
- Evil scientist hunts women (Orphan Black)
- Unreliable narrator with (possible, indeterminate) mental illness (Mr. Robot)
- Woman hunts man across time/dimensions (Outlander)
The OA is like an Urban Dictionary quilt of meta shows about searching and trauma and escape and truth — but while it delivers some lovely moments, it's less than the sum of its parts.
So what's going on with all these meta dramas that are trying so hard? Why aren't they quite working, and what can they tell us despite their shortcomings?
I'm talking, again, about shows that have a project and announce it and obliquely reference it from time to time to tell you how it's all going. When Mr. Robot's Elliot speaks in voiceover, he's also narrating the show's conceit. "A loop," he says of his routine in the Season 2 premiere. "My perfectly constructed loop." He has programmed himself, he is trying to become a robot. Get it? Or when Method Man says in Luke Cage, "You know, there's somethin' powerful about seeing a black man that's bulletproof and unafraid." Or when Teddy explains to the Man in Black what the maze represents in Westworld:
The maze itself is the sum of a man's life. The choices he makes, dreams he hangs onto. And at the center is a legendary man who's been killed over and over again, countless times, but always clawed his way back to life. And returned back to life and vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury. Built a house, around that house he built a maze so complicated only he could navigate through it. I reckon he'd seen enough fighting.
These are meta dramas with philosophical aspirations, and they anxiously remind you of their themes in case you missed them (or fell behind on your think-piece reading).
This meta thing isn't unique to dramas, of course. It's all over the place these days, and sometimes it works! In fact, it's instructive to look at meta shows in other genres that are pulling off some of these experiments in ways the dramas aren't.
Bojack Horseman, a meta cartoon about Hollywood starring a washed-up star from the '80s who happens to be a horse, came close to what I'd call epiphanic success in its third season finale. That's partly because it's a cartoon that could underpromise and overdeliver. Netflix's Stranger Things did much the same: By building its world around a game of Dungeons and Dragons (meta!) but committing conceptually to play the way kids do, it tapped into a potent strain of nostalgia and produced dread better than any thought experiment could.
That can work beautifully in comedy too. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin are successful because they're campy parables about crazy ex-girlfriends and virgins that laugh at themselves and deconstruct the categories for which they're named. Their philosophical insights — whether it's Jane's struggle with the virgin/whore dichotomy or Rachel Bloom's canny satire of how love scripts go toxic in the season 2 theme song — work because of how secondary they seem. This is harder to pull off in drama, which has fewer winks available when reconciling plot with philosophy.
What these successful instances share is a.) a lighter tone and b.) a pattern of attending to character and plot before they skew philosophical. Not so in the meta dramas, which suffer under the strain of having to make their plots delivery systems for Big Ideas.
Rarely do both sides of that project — plot and philosophy — succeed. Some shows, like Luke Cage, do fine with their plots but lose track of their metaphors. Jessica Jones, on the other hand, stuck the landing philosophically — the concepts of rape and consent and trauma were handled pretty well — but the plot details didn't add up.
True Detective was a failure at philosophy and plot alike: The "solution" to the mystery was — at a simple genre level — laughably unconvincing, and its message of transcendence was worse than useless. Westworld seemed poised to succeed where that show failed, but then it slid past the exciting spectacle of a rigid and ugly system sliding into chaos into an explanation that doesn't work. Mr. Robot, like Westworld, got so interested in paranoid reading and surprising us with twists that it neglected to let us watch characters develop — everything you see at any time can be fake, which means you're too busy looking for clues to let it affect you.
And we've been trained into eager bad faith: The executives and actors for Game of Thrones broke a longstanding contract with fans by lying about Jon Snow's resurrection. Now fans of every show are busily analyzing every frame for signs that there's something else going on — something different from what the show says, and from what we can see. When it comes to television, we've fully entered the age of conspiracies.
That these shows don't nail what they were going for doesn't make them uninteresting; quite the contrary.
The OA crystallized two things for me: First, how obsessed we are with those shared tropes; and second, how hard we're trying to resolve them into redemptive suffering as we understand it. We're trying to make the pain okay, to make it matter, to turn it into something positive.
Why are we awash in shows about damaged children who grow into strange adults capable of hacking systems and dimensions? Why are we flooded with unreliable narrators? Why are we fascinated with what dying multiple times might do for you? With people imprisoned for their abilities? And why aren't we able to push those stories far enough forward so that they make some redemptive kind of sense?
The answer may be that our philosophical hopes are still a little too bright for the plots to which we try and set them. There are thought experiments for which there will be no sunny angle that feels true. Black Mirror works as well as it does because it doesn't strain for optimism. It sustains the thought experiment for a single episode and lets it go, leaving a devastated audience in its wake. That's not a particularly American mode of storytelling. (Our version of The Office is brighter and several times longer than the British original.) But Rogue One suggests that Americans might finally be ready to let a darker mode exist.
May 2017 bring us better meta dramas, some that don't lean quite so desperately on transcendence and instead let their premises come true.