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Netflix vs. The Movements: can a flashmob save The OA?

Britt Marling, star of The OA
Britt Marling, star of The OA

If you happen to be out at around 8pm this evening UK time, you may be greeted with the strangest sight: people breaking into interpretive dance moves in a bid to open a portal to another dimension. A dimension in which the cult Netflix sci-fi show The OA isn’t cancelled. 

Across the globe fans of The OA are planning a flashmob protest with a difference. They are coming together to perform the “five movements”: a wacky series of kung-fu style choreographic flourishes. The hope is that Netflix will be so impressed/unnerved/mystified it will reverse its decision to call time on The OA after two seasons.  

Encountered in the wild, an OA flashmob may well seem entirely bonkers. The intention behind it is anything but. In the show, the five movements are a means of unlocking gateways to different dimensions. You stretch, form a triangle with your hands, waggle your fingers in a starfish shape, grab an invisible golfball from your mouth and then wave your hands all over again. 

It sounds ludicrous. Looks it too. Yet the dance was created in complete earnestness for The OA by an LA choreographer who has worked with musicians Sia and Sigur Ros. And anyone who has watched the show will know how dramatic the movements can be. There’s real tension, for instance, when they are deployed at the end of season one to prevent a school shooting. 

In the real world, the movements have already become a means of protest. In 2017, anti-Trump activists gathered outside the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan and performed the ritual. They were lead by choreographer Jess Grippo, who, according to her Twitter feed, has also created a “suite of interpretive dances based on cheese”. 

There was nothing cheesy about the flashmob movements, though. “If we were going to turn these powerful movements into a large-scale flashmob, it was going to be outside of a Trump building,” Grippo wrote on her YouTube page. “The intention [was] to spread a healing, transformative energy and to get people in our country out of a bad situation with this new presidency and into a “new dimension” similar to how the movements were used in the show.”

Not every sci-fi drama has people breaking out in interpretive dance outside a Donald Trump hotel. It’s testament to the passion fans feel for The OA – passion that has now turned to anger. The cancellation was genuinely a thunderbolt from nowhere. The series’s co-creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (Marling also stars) had mapped out a five year arc and were forging ahead with the next run of instalments. With The OA cut down in its prime, all that hard work has been rendered as ephemeral as a flashmob waving hands in the air. 

Netflix’s response – not that it ever explains its cancellation decisions – would probably be that the series hasn’t broken through with a more mainstream audience. This is no surprise as The OA is a deeply discombobulating watch. Synchronised dancing isn’t even in its top 10 weirdest moments (try the talking octopus – more of which below). 

Britt Marling and her psychic octopus

At its most simplistic, The OA is about a woman named Prairie – she also goes as “Original Angel” and is played by Marling – who travels through different dimensions. In season one she has apparently returned from a near-death experience and shares her story with a group of wide-eyed teenagers. It is to them she passes on the movements. Later, they use the dance to intervene as a shooter enters their school. 

Series two beams Prairie into another dimension, where she apparently has a new identity. As do all her friends and acquaintances from season one, with the exception of the nefarious Hap. He’s a multi-verse traversing evil scientist, portrayed by Jason Isaacs and somehow bound across time and space to Prairie. Here we stumble upon the talking octopus and also a house in San Francisco which serves was a doorway to parallel worlds. 

One of the initial inspirations for The OA was a conversation Marling had with a woman who claimed to have had a near-death experience. 

“She just seemed to be operating at a different frequency. When she told me she had a near-death experience — and described leaving her body and what she felt inside herself on the return — you understand why she felt like a person who was both apart from the world, but also more deeply in it,” Marling said in 2016. “The idea of a character like that became really appealing.”

The second season further ratcheted up the bizarre factor. It did so by exploring the idea that are multiple versions of our reality out in the universe.  And multiple versions of us too. Here, Prairie is beamed into an alternate rendering of herself– a Russian heiress named Nina. She resides in a parallel pocket of the cosmos where Joe Biden is President instead of Donald Trump. 

That is arguably more convoluted that any binge-watch show needs to be. But it’s in the execution where the OA has soared. The filmography is stunning. Take the early scene in which Prairie dies and meets a cloaked seer in the afterlife named Khatun. Or the series two climax where the heroine floats and glows in slow motion. It’s the TV equivalent of abstract art. You may have no idea what you’re staring at. Still, it registers emotionally. 

Britt Marling in season 2 of The OA Credit: Netflix

This is how The OA is intended to be consumed, it’s tempting to conclude from Marling’s own statements. “One of the things we had definitely planned from the get-go is the idea of a narrative that was interested in genre slipstreaming. Part of that just came as a reaction to what it feels like to be alive right now in the world. It feels like we’re literally genre slipstreaming. 

“You wake up in the morning and the sun is coming through your window, and you’re moving through your routine, and you feel like you’re in a romantic comedy, and then you like go online, and you read some article about something that’s happened, and you’re like in a horror film.”

The true horror fans will argue is Netflix’s cancellation decision. Marling was certainly shocked. She took to Instagram to explain the announcement had reduced her to tears.  

But was that merely a ruse on her part? There is a theory that the news is actually a feint by Netflix. This flows from the surprise conclusion to season two, in which the fourth wall came tumbling down. After the aforementioned floating-and-glowing bit, Prairie and Hap materialised on a TV set. There, they answered to “Brit” and “Jason”. And they were married to each another (the actors are not married in real life).

It was a meta twist that saw the show acknowledging it was a Netflix series. Hence the idea that The OA’s demise is merely a further misdirection. That somehow, somewhere it lives on. 

Yet that doesn’t square with the fact that even many of those involved with The OA were confused by the decision to beam it into the “real” world. When Zal Batmanglij dropped the bombshell to Jason Isaacs, for instance, the actor essentially ran off screaming. 

“I was having tremendous difficulty understanding what the hell he was talking about," Isaacs recalled. "But then he got to the end and I just went, 'You're f***ing kidding me. 'I walked outside the restaurant, he followed me and I walked around the street going, 'I don't understand how that works? What do you mean?' He said, just trust me. It's going to be wild. It's going to be brilliant.”

Brilliant or baffling, it’s obvious the OA touched many viewers deeply and profoundly. However, rather than rushing to condemn Netflix perhaps fans should reflect how remarkable it was the show was green-lit in the first place. No Hollywood studio or conventional TV network would have touched a project as esoteric as The OA. They certainly wouldn’t have given Marling and Batmanglij license to crank up the eccentricity further still in year two (ie the talking octopus). 

One criticism of Netflix’s recent cancelling spree is that it has targeted programmes tailored for women. That may be true of Santa Clarita Diet, an irreverent take on the zombie genre, and The Chambers, where a woman’s physical trauma echoes her emotional pain.

But The OA was too weird to feel aimed at any specific demographic. And regardless of race, gender or creed, the 16 hours of unprocessed weirdness that we have should be enough for anyone. All the flashmobs in the world won’t change that.