Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The OA

In an entertainment world awash in TV shows, The OA has managed to catch the attention of a lot of people, and for good reason: the writers do a great job building compelling characters; the uncertainty of what is actually happening holds one's interest and piques one's curiosity; and there is a complexity lurking beneath the surface that keeps the show the show simmering in the back of the viewer's mind. 

Don't get me wrong - it's not a perfect show by any means. However, when compared to the plethora of current TV series, it holds its own well against the competition. Rather than dive into the rabbit hole of the baffling final episode, I would like to address some worldview messages embedded within the show.

I may be giving the writers more credit than they deserve – I don’t know how complex of a story they were attempting to tell. Nonetheless, bidden or unbidden, a worldview is present. That worldview is what I would like to unpack.

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First, there is a serious look at the nature of good and evil. As two scientists dispassionately discuss their experiments on their captives (which for one includes incinerating test subjects regularly), one of them notes, “There is no line between good and evil; there’s only what a man can stand.” The OA does a great job showing how that kind of philosophy can be used to justify dehumanizing atrocities.

This blurred line ethical line was depicted not only in the main villain, but also in the many 'ordinary' ways people used and abused others throughout the narrative. For example, my first thought was that the sex scenes were entirely gratuitous. My second was that while they were certainly gratuitously graphic, they actually served the purpose: they gave a more ordinary version of the blurred line between good and evil by depicting what sex is like when one person uses another for his or her own selfish purposes. One guy was just a toy being blatantly used by his hook up partner; one woman was unknowingly being seduced into slavery and perhaps eventual death. When there is no line between good and evil, people first lose their humanity, then their freedom, and perhaps eventually their lives.

In both cases, the show unpacked the appropriate emotional and relational devastation that followed. I don’t mean to justify the gratuitous nature of the depiction (they could learn from the riveting and much more appropriate Stranger Things), but I appreciated how the writers allowed real world consequences to play out. One does not need to be blatantly monstrous to participate in dehumanization and objectification by treating people as means to an end. Like, say, filming people in gratuitously graphic situations to appear more edgy or for better ratings. Netflix, heal thyself.

Second, in the OA isolation brings madness; community brings hope. There is something important about being a part of something bigger than yourself. The Five in prison would have gone mad without the company of others. The students and teacher the OA gathered were all spiraling downward in a world in which they felt alone and misunderstood, but they found hope and purpose in community. One could even argue that the morally bankrupt scientist got to where he was by isolating himself from a community of peers (his one even more pernicious friend excluded) that would have kept his selfishness and cold utilitarianism in check.

Third, self-sacrifice is a marker of goodness. As the show unfolds, we find ourselves rooting for those who have learned (or are learning) how to live for the good of others even if it comes at great cost to themselves. We see this in the OA’s adoptive parents; in the BBA; in the OA’s commitment to go back for her friends; in the students risking their lives to save their classmates. Aristotle would be proud: they were almost instinctively virtuous, compelled to do good not by coercion or even by choice but by their increasingly virtuous nature. In a culture that seems to be increasingly motivated by self-interest, I appreciated this message.

Fourth –and this final point may be the most significant - if I am reading the show correctly, The OA implies that what is true is not as important as what people believe is true. It reminded me a little bit of Life of Pi’s ambiguous treatment of reality. (“Which is the better story?”) Is the OA telling people what happened, or is she insane? It’s not clear - but does it matter? She gives guidance and inspiration to lost souls. She probably diverts escalating violence and depression within several kids. She gives them value and worth. Her story leads to the salvation of a cafeteria full of innocent people in danger of being killed. So what if she is mad? Why worry about a line between truth and falsity? All that matters is what works. Who cares about fake news when the truth status of reality is not deeply concerning?

I wonder if that's why the end is so remarkably ambiguous. It doesn’t matter what’s actually true as much as what we want to believe is true. Yay, postmodern storytelling.

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At one point, one of the characters says, “I want to taste the truth. I just want to walk out of the dark.” Me too. Hopefully Season Two – if there is one - will make that possible by showing us the value of truth, and by telling the story in a way that enables us to avoid the moral darkness on which The OA attempts, with mixed results, to shine the light of goodness and hope.  

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