tv The Radical Sincerity of The OA
During the two hours I spent talking with Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij in February, the conversation eddied its way around the following topics. The movies of Krzysztof Kieślowski. The neuroscience of trauma. The painter and novelist Leonora Carrington. Noise shows in San Francisco. Hilma af Klint and the origins of abstract expressionism. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. Cassandra and the gift of second sight. Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation. The scourge of irony. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. The serenity of Le Pain Quotidien. We were sitting at the dining table of what seemed to be an Airbnb apartment in L.A.’s Los Feliz, but it felt at times as if we’d been accidentally transposed into an upcoming novel by Don DeLillo.
Marling and Batmanglij, if you haven’t encountered their work or deduced from the above, are probably the two most erudite people in Hollywood. Within the larger, seamier confines of the entertainment industry, they stand out like a pair of unicorns on the Las Vegas strip. Their partnership works so well, you sense, because they’re like two halves of the same brain. Marling, who’s 36, is the gentler of the two, soft-spoken and intentional, while Batmanglij, who’s a year or so older, is fierier and more passionate. She’s blond, and wearing a rainbow-colored sweater over houndstooth pants; he’s dark-haired, and dressed in black. The musician Sharon Van Etten, who stars in their Netflix series The OA, told me over email that Marling is “very sensitive. Intuitive. A caretaker. Collaborative. Zal is intense. Thoughtful. Driven.” The two complement each other, Van Etten said, but they also push each other, and each other’s work, to the limits.
It’s easy to imagine a world in which they never met, never found their niche in filmmaking, never made it to the position they occupy now as creators of one of the strangest and most original shows of the Peak TV era. Marling sometimes imagines a timeline wherein their movie Sound of My Voice never made it to Sundance in 2011 and she became an environmental lawyer instead. Somehow, though, everything fell into place. They found success on the indie-film circuit, and then they made a studio movie, The East, and then Netflix happened. Silicon Valley’s incursion into the entertainment world meant that suddenly a major corporation with colossal spending power was willing to green-light a series about an interdimensional traveler who goes by the name OA: Original Angel.
When The OA debuted in a surprise drop at the end of 2016, it quickly became one of Netflix’s coveted word-of-mouth hits, as viewers furiously debated its meaning, its mythology, its magniloquence. In the series, Marling plays a woman named Prairie, who wakes up in a hospital bed and is reunited with her adoptive parents after having been missing for seven years. There are two immediate surprises: Though Prairie used to be blind, she can now see. And she insists that her name isn’t Prairie anymore, but “the OA.” The mystery of Prairie/OA only deepens as the show continues. She gathers a group of disaffected high schoolers and tells them stories about her life—how she was kept in captivity by a scientist named Hap (Jason Isaacs) and forced to undergo near-death experiences. The series urges you to wonder: Is the OA a survivor? A nascent cult leader? A miracle? A fraud?
Many people loved The OA. Some hated it. Critics were particularly polarized by the show’s use of choreographed movements as a key plot point, and by the Season 1 finale, which—minor spoilers ahead—involved a dramatic act of faith, in which the OA’s followers used those movements to try to stop a school shooting. Some accused Marling and Batmanglij of tastelessness in using the most awful of American tragedies to conclude their story. For my part, I thought they’d earned it, having spent time during the rest of the season exploring the ways in which violent impulses can be fostered. I’ve gone back to watch that scene several times since, sometimes just because it offers feelings—catharsis and hope—that are in short supply.
The OA’s metaphysical elements, its ideas about parallel universes and supernatural dreams, cast the show into a new wave of speculative storytelling on television. It followed Netflix’s Stranger Things, an ’80s-steeped sci-fi series about psychokinesis and monsters from other dimensions, and NBC’s The Good Place, an office comedy of sorts about life after death and the meaning of morality. More recently, Russian Doll on Netflix presented a scenario in which a woman dies over and over again, using it to explore the question of what people can mean to one another in this complicated, heartbreaking plane of existence.
This trend, Batmanglij theorized, is part of a reaction to the fact that reality feels more and more fractured, with its online portals to different worlds, and its varying versions of the truth. He wonders whether part one of The OA might play differently over time, as audiences become more accustomed to TV shows raising these kinds of ideas. “We’re not really making stories for just the here and now,” he said. “We’re also making them because we believe in them. And you can’t give up on what you believe in just because someone didn’t like the idea of movements as an answer towards [pause] the nihilism of a school shooting.”
As Marling and Batmanglij prepare to roll out the second season of The OA on March 22, these are the kinds of things they’re thinking about. They’re exhausted, mostly, in that bone-deep, anxiety-saturated, slightly surreal way when you’ve been working 14-hour days for as long as you can remember. They’re worn out from envisioning, writing, directing (in Batmanglij’s case), and acting (in Marling’s) in an eight-hour story that’s taken more than two years to finish, and that doesn’t even begin to conclude the original plan they had for The OA. But they’re also wondering what it means to try to tell empathic, sincere stories to audiences much more accustomed to cynicism and irony. Because, when it comes down to it, which side is more likely to give first?
It feels important to note at this point that if the darkness of the universe is going to eventually wear down Marling and Batmanglij’s ambition, or their spirit, it hasn’t happened yet. Season 2 of The OA, in some ways, is even odder and more ambitious than the first. For one thing, there’s its tone, a film noir set in modern-day San Francisco. After finishing Season 1, Marling and Batmanglij left Los Angeles and went north. They spent time with environmental activists, with people running homeless shelters, at tech companies developing augmented-reality software. They hung out with friends who run, in Marling’s words, “a kind of anarchist mixed-purpose lab space.” They never really knew what any of these experiences would come to mean, but almost all of them ended up in the final story.
The shift in location, at first, is a jarring one. Season 1 of The OA was set mostly in the suburbs of Michigan, in a bland, identikit community that connected with the ennui and purposeless of the OA’s followers. The show’s periodic excursions to more far-flung locations (Cuba, New York, Russia) distinguished the OA’s extravagant stories from the sterility of the place she’d returned to. But with San Francisco, Marling and Batmanglij have a locale that embodies all the fractures of the current moment: the dichotomy between rich and poor, the ongoing disruptions in the way people experience reality. They were drawn to the idea of a noir, Batmanglij said, because noirs are often defined by the idea that places themselves can be corrupt, and that the corruption can make its way into people. (He cites Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as an example.)
Without spoiling too much beyond what’s been teased in the trailer, Season 2 offers conclusive answers to Season 1’s most ambiguous plot points. And it expands the scope of how the show’s universe functions, delving more deeply into the mechanics of jumping between dimensions. The show’s worlds have some factual differences—in the San Francisco universe of Season 2, it’s still 2016 and Joe Biden is president—and some more intangible ones. Marling’s performance is very distinct. “As a director, I was shocked when I met this other person,” Batmanglij said. “I did feel like I was in the presence of someone physically different.”
When Marling and Batmanglij first met, he was 21 and she wasn’t quite 20. While they were both studying at Georgetown, Marling saw a short film made by Batmanglij and his friend Mike Cahill and introduced herself, asking whether she could work with them. Marling was majoring in economics and considering a career in finance, even interning at Goldman Sachs. “It was such a cerebral, analytical experience,” she said of banking. “The farther I went down that road, the more I felt that I was losing an essential side of myself, and acting was a way to reclaim it.”
After Marling graduated, she moved to Los Angeles, where she, Batmanglij, and Cahill lived in a house not far from the one we’re sitting in. What happened next, far from being the instant success story Hollywood prefers, took several years. Marling went on auditions, but eventually stopped after getting too dispirited by the kinds of roles she was reading for. She read screenwriting books. She and Batmanglij would act out ideas before writing anything down (this is still their method now), playing out scenes and moments, grabbing nearby objects as props. They were in a bedroom one day, Batmanglij on a skateboard moving back and forth, when Marling started humming a tune. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’” Batmanglij said. “I just dollied in with my skateboard. I don’t think I even had an iPhone; it was just [a pretend] finger camera. I dollied in, and that was [how we came up with Sound of My Voice].”
Around 2009, Cahill and Marling had spontaneously begun making Another Earth, a speculative drama about the discovery of a mirror planet just like this one and a 17-year-old girl (Marling) who begins to consider its possibilities following a tragic accident. After seeing how well this gonzo, just-do-it approach to filmmaking had worked out, Batmanglij and Marling tried the same thing with Sound of My Voice, a script they’d written about an enigmatic spiritual leader who claims to be a time traveler from the year 2054. The movie cost $130,000 to make, and took three months to film. Last minute, they submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, and it happened to be accepted, as was Another Earth. Almost instantly, Marling went from being a total unknown to someone who had two films debuting at arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world at the same time.
She describes the moment as “a dimension jump,” a point of no return. “Suddenly, you’re in the same spaces, but they’re different. You now have an ability to pitch an idea or get resources or meet people. Walking through those gates is such a big deal. I think it’s actually part of why we were so interested in the idea of dimensions and forked paths. Like, what if we hadn’t gotten into that Sundance?”
Batmanglij and Marling’s next film together, the 2013 eco-thriller The East, was partly inspired by the two months that they had spent practicing freeganism, embedding with an anarchist collective and trying to explore unorthodox methods of living a meaningful life. The movie, about a corporate investigator (Marling) who infiltrates an environmental activist group, was distributed by Fox Searchlight and featured an impressive list of stars (Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson). But Batmanglij and Marling found the experience of working with a major movie studio to be a disappointing one. “It’s not that people were bad or corrupt,” Batmanglij said. “It’s that they had been trained in a certain way, you know, it’s classic—abuse the people below you, press them down, the strong will survive.”
“It’s a culture of power and abuse,” Marling said. “It’s very specific individuals who set the tone of a space.” (In 2017, Marling wrote an essay for The Atlanticabout her experiences being propositioned by Harvey Weinstein and the ways in which economic gatekeeping makes sexual abuse and harassment even more endemic within Hollywood.) In 2012, the pair began a three-year process of figuring out a much bigger project, a long-form story that charted multiple seasons and took a novelistic approach to television. During this time, Marling acted in a handful of side projects, appearing in The Keeping Room, an action thriller set during the final days of the Civil War, and in Babylon, an offbeat TV comedy about London’s Metropolitan Police. Batmanglij worked as a director on the Fox sci-fi mystery Wayward Pines, where he met Matt and Ross Duffer, two brothers who were then writers for the M. Night Shyamalan–produced series.
“None of us had ever worked in television before, but we were all excited about the future of the medium,” the Duffers told me in an email (as with their Netflix series, Stranger Things, they appeared to have co-written the message). “True Detective ads were airing, [Steven] Soderbergh was starting work on The Knick. We could all sense that the line between TV and film was blurring. There was just this feeling of change in the air.”
Netflix was only a couple of years into its existence as a purveyor of original content when it green-lit The OA and Stranger Things, signing up both shows within a month of each other. Batmanglij theorizes that it was a “weird fractal blip,” a moment when Netflix was willing to take big chances on young filmmakers and to offer them substantial creative freedom. Marling thinks it was more about a company entering the entertainment industry that was entirely ungoverned by its rules. “The deep narrative myth that Silicon Valley tells itself is that the best gamble, the most worthwhile endeavor, is going to be what appears at first to be the most far-out risk,” she said. “So when you brought that tech-company mentality into Hollywood, it was a complete about-face.”
But Netflix wasn’t only changing the way television was commissioned and produced. It was also upending the whole system for how shows were consumed. Previously, when debuting their work, Batmanglij and Marling had been at film festivals, buffeted by small audiences of professional critics and cinephiles. The OA was different. Overnight, it landed on a platform where it was accessible to hundreds of millions of people. There was no soft opening, no way to ease their series into the world. The OA dropped, and people began to watch it, and to respond to watching it in real time, broadcasting their thoughts to their social-media feeds, and there was no way back.
Batmanglij and Marling have a bond that is hard to describe but fascinating to observe. They finish each other’s sentences and jump in with observations that embellish the point the other is making. They’re enormously solicitous of each other, throwing out compliments randomly, and apologizing, always, when they interrupt each other. When I asked how they balance processing criticism with sticking to their ultimate intentions for the show, Batmanglij immediately jumped in, in an instinctively protective way. Marling doesn’t engage with the world online, he said. He has to pressure her into occasionally posting to social media, like, “Let’s Instagram, Brit, because it’s fun!” But it’s not an environment that feels natural for her, at all.
If there was one factor that seemed to unnerve some people about The OA, it was its sincerity. Modern viewers fluent in the internet expect a certain wry disillusionment from TV creators, punctuated with sporadic moments of emotional breakthrough and catharsis. Everyone—viewers and writers together—is in on the joke. When everything seems so terrible, irony is a protective shroud, offering a way to acknowledge reality without being affected by it. Irony, Edward St. Aubyn writes in the last of his Patrick Melrose novels, about an Englishman processing horrendous childhood abuse, “is the hardest addiction of all … Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”
The OA, as a television show, is radiantly, transparently earnest. In the final episode of Season 1, a group of teenage boys—teenage boys!—and a middle-aged woman respond to the palpable horror of another armed teenager in a school cafeteria by launching into the movements that the OA has taught them, the movements she promises can open a portal to another dimension. In the crisis of that moment, the OA’s followers are unafraid of what their peers might think or how people will respond. The only thing that matters is trying to avert a tragedy.
“Irony’s so fashionable right now,” Batmanglij said. “Existing outside of irony is so hard.” But he and Marling felt adamant that their sincerity was one of their most significant qualities as writers. They made a pact that they weren’t going to let anything or anyone drum their sincerity out of them. “If you do, you’re sort of dead in the water as an artist,” Marling said. “Then it’s like you’ve decided that what matters most is everybody getting it.” One of the most dysfunctional qualities about the world right now, she thinks, is that people aren’t able to just sit with complicated emotions, or truly listen, or be open about what they’re feeling. “Those things are out of fashion, and the fact that they’ve fallen out of fashion is why we’re living in the world we’re living in.”
They did, however, allow a little more cynicism to enter the world of Season 2, via a new character, an investigator called Karim (played by the British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir) who teams up with OA/Prairie to search for a missing child. Ben-Adir read for the part without having watched the first season, but when he caught up with it afterward, he found the cafeteria scene intensely moving. So much of the show, he told me, “is up for interpretation. I don’t think we’re used to seeing that.” Karim, in Season 2, often functions as an avatar for more skeptical viewers, responding to the events unfolding around him with the arched eyebrow of the hard-boiled detective.
In the end, though, as Marling said, it’s okay if not everyone gets it. Something she thinks about a lot is the paradox of trying to make something original these days, something that’s informed by the truth of the human condition but unfettered by criticism or praise. “You have to somehow have the heart of a baby and the hide of a rhinoceros. And that is a crazy juxtaposition. How do you maintain it?”
You do it, maybe, by being sincere, by keeping the hope, always, that the work you make might not be able to change the whole world, but it might reach a tiny part of it. Or, on Netflix, it might also reach people you’ve never dreamed of.
Marling describes one of the responses to The OA that moved her the most, a video that a young man sent her. “Can I set it up for a second?” Batmanglij asked. “He’s visiting his grandma for the weekend, and he goes and he finds her to say goodbye.” Marling picked up the story. “She’s standing in the backyard, she’s 80 years old, and she’s standing in the sun, the late sun coming at the end of the day, and she’s doing this. [She mimics the movements from the show.] And he’s like, ‘Grandma, grandma, what are you doing?’ And she’s like, ‘I’m going somewhere.’” Marling smiles. Things like that can daze you, she said. When you think about it, it’s miraculous. “You can touch strangers, and they can touch you back.”
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