Fans Are Going To Extreme Lengths To Save The OA. They Can’t, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Pointless.
Netflix cancelled The OA and fans started a movement. What's really behind the hunger strike, protests, and flash mob to save the show?
Every Friday this summer, Refinery29 explores the passionate, rollicking world of fandom. We’ll take a look at how we organize, create, debate and show our passion for the things we love — the good, the bad, and the loud.
Emperial Young is on day eight of a hunger strike. It’s not over the burning of the Amazon, or gun violence, or the latest controversial move by the current Commander-in-Chief. Young, 35, wants Netflix to renew The OA for a third season — and she’s willing to go to extreme lengths of what she calls “internal violence” to make it happen.
“We are living in a time where it seems that things are going to go very badly,” explains Young in front of the Netflix building in Hollywood, where she has been protesting since August 15 and hunger striking since August 19. “The response to that has been ‘Okay, we’re going to make darker, grittier television.’ But in times of darkness, light is most important, and The OA is filled with light. We need something to let us know, ‘Yes, we can do something,’ because all the media around us is telling us that these are dark, grim times and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Created by Brit Marling and creative partner Zal Batmanglij, The OA tells the story of Prairie (Marling), a blind woman who returns after years in captivity with her sight restored. Season 1 of the series mostly exists within the narrative that Prairie tells a group of soon-to-be friends about her time in captivity and before it, in which she transcended time and space and found herself in alternate dimensions. Along the way, the show tackles themes of trauma, and of the importance of a human connection amongst it. Young isn’t wrong about The OA being different: There’s a hopefulness to The OA that is unmatched by more gritty prestige TV offerings like The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, even Game of Thrones.
Netflix never released viewership data for the series, but critics praised its first and second season. “It's with great joy that I can say that The OA's second season...takes the seeds planted in the show's first eight episodes and lets them blossom into something close to a masterpiece,” wrote Thrillist of its successful sophomore installment. “The OA reminds us it's natural to feel out of place, and tries to instill a little faith in what's to come,” said The Daily Beast. “More, it wants us to really feel our feelings about it without the cover of jokes or irony.” Season 2 currently holds a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The response to the end of The OA’ s journey is a reminder of the power of fandom. Shortly after its cancellation, a “Save The OA” petition on Change.org was created. Currently, it has over 80,000 signatures. The petition encourages fans to not only make title requests to Netflix for the next three seasons of The OA (the creators reportedly wanted to tell their story across five seasons) but to cancel their subscription to the streaming service in the meantime.
The OA’s cancellation sparked a movement that transcended social media and entered the real world: A crowdfunded digital billboard appeared over Times Square. A second digital billboard went up across from the College Medical Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne. A flashmob, in which fans did the “movements” from the series at a synchronized time, also popped up in New York City. (This follows a 2017 flashmob in front of Manhattan’s Trump Tower, designed to “protect” us from “darker forces at work in our country.”) Another, yet-to-be-unveiled digital billboard is planned for Los Angeles, a fan tells me over Twitter.
With a streaming show like The OA — which premiered on Netflix initially in 2016 but did not drop its second season until 2019 — it can seem like the fandom hibernates in between installments. There’s no week-to-week analysis of the new episodes, or attempting to uncover spoilers from the season finale à la Game of Thrones. Yet the campaign to save The OA proves that these fans were never really sleeping on this series, even when the theorizing about season 2 plot points fell off in the months after the show’s premiere. Perhaps the fandom just assumed it would have the opportunity to finish what it started: While fans were waiting for season 2, Marling posted on Instagram about the care the creators were taking to get everything right, hence the nearly three-year wait between seasons.
When I arrive at the Netflix building in Hollywood on Tuesday, I find Young on the corner of Sunset and Van Ness. She’s holding a simple “Save The OA” sign and wearing a Slytherin hat — a symbol of the Harry Potter fandom. I want to know: Why take such extreme lengths for a TV show? (She admits she did have a meal over the weekend before a strenuous task, so technically, it’s more like “six days plus two days.”)
“A lot of people say that The OA is more than a TV show, that it’s a work of art, and I agree with that. In our capitalist society, it’s sometimes the best resource that somebody who feels invisible has,” explains Young in a calm, yet very assured voice. “For people who are trans, who are gay, for people in smaller communities who feel like they can’t be open about who they are, this is a show that gives visibility. Visibility can save lives. Just having something on a screen that says ‘You matter. You belong to something. You’re worthy of being a part of a story that’s being told,’ that can really make a difference to somebody.”
Nora Rowan, 31, a mother and former actress, joins Young on Tuesday, wearing angel wings and holding her own picket sign. (“Swim to another side,” it reads on the front. A missing person’s photo of Marling’s character The OA, which stands for Original Angel, is on the other side.) Rowan is not joining Young on the hunger strike, but shares her passion in saving the series. She’s had a tough few years: Her husband left her a year before season 2 of The OA dropped on Netflix, having just come out as gay. She ponders whether he would have kept that part of himself a secret had he seen more programs like The OA, that allowed for visibility of queer characters.
“It’s about something bigger,” Rowan insists of the series, and therefore the protest. “[On the show, there are] representation of different ethnicities, disabilities, gender identities. It’s written and produced by a woman. It stars a woman.”
The fans I connected with on Twitter prior to meeting Young at the corner don’t see the series as merely another sci-fi show in their queue, either. Destiny Alexander, of @TheOAagenda, tells me over direct message on Twitter: “Seeing a strong woman on screen makes me feel powerful,” adding: “There’s accurate LGBTQ+ representation, which is so important to me and everyone else in the community. We feel seen.”
“For people who are trans, who are gay, for people in smaller communities who feel like they can’t be open about who they are, this is a show that gives visibility. Visibility can save lives."
Rowan echoes this statement: “Brit has this quote that says she writes sci-fi because in this world, she doesn’t feel free to be herself. The OA made a lot of us feel free.”
In addition to star Marling, The OA shines a light on its other main players including Buck (Ian Alexander), a trans man played by a trans actor, and teacher Betty (The Office’s Phyllis Smith). Smith is 68, and Young notes — correctly, for those of us who have watched television — that she could have been “pushed to the fringes of the storyline” on another show. Here, “she’s intrinsic,” says Young. “She’s the heart of the family.” Young says it’s not just the characters who are unique, but how they are woven into the story. White teenager Steve (Patrick Gibson) could have easily been an “antagonist” on another show: Initially, he reacts with anger to The OA’s teachings. Marling’s character responds to him with love and care and soon he, too, is brought into the fold.
“OA reaches out and hugs him,” notes Young. “She includes him. And that’s just the beginning.”
Structurally, The OA is broken into episodes that vary wildly in length. The narrative itself breaks all convention — there’s no A, B, or C plot to follow through on an episode to episode basis.
Therein lies the irony of fans anger towards Netflix. What other platform would have allowed for such innovative storytelling in the first place? It’s hard to see The OA receiving a greenlight from any other network or streamer when it debuted in 2016. It’s just too — and I say this lovingly — weird.
Cindy Holland, VP of Original Content at Netflix, said in a statement upon the cancellation: “We are incredibly proud of the 16 mesmerizing chapters of The OA, and are grateful to Brit and Zal for sharing their audacious vision and for realizing it through their incredible artistry. We look forward to working with them again in the future, in this and perhaps many other dimensions.”
If Young and Rowan are grateful Netflix allowed the story to be told, even in part, it’s clouded by their anger over its perceived lack of advertising for the show’s second season and decision to rely on “algorithms” (Young’s words) that allege it didn’t get enough views to be profitable to make a third season.
“If anything, me being out here, taking this extreme action, I hope it acts as a lightning rod, telling people ‘This is something you should watch,’” says Young. She reminds me that people still subscribe to HBO for back seasons of The Wire; if only Netflix bet onThe OA harder, perhaps the tide could turn for its profitability. Yet Young isn’t so interested in Netflix’s bottom line, and suggests that maybe they should take a hard look at its significance, too.
“Netflix is a company that claims to value good and inclusive storytelling. They claim they are a socially conscious company. However, that’s all words, unless you do something that backs that up,” explains Young. “ I’m doing a hunger strike as an act of internal violence. Anytime you come up against something, you have a choice...What’s the blood of a company? It’s money. If [I’m] willing to do a small act of internal violence, maybe it will show Netflix that it could do something that...maybe doesn’t benefit it financially.”
Both Rowan and Young have cancelled their Netflix accounts, but say they would reactivate them if the streaming service allowed The OA to be shopped to other networks, just as Netflix’s One Day At a Time was to Pop.
“When I called in and cancelled, I told Netflix that I would renew my subscription if Netflix renewed The OA, or released it [so it could be bought by other networks or streamers.] I’m more than happy to subscribe again if Netflix releases it, or renews it,” explains Rowan. “There are shows on Netflix I do like, but The OA is a reason to go to another provider for my [streaming content.]”
The issue here is that while Sony was the studio behind One Day At a Time — and Netflix licensed the series from Sony — Netflix owns and streams The OA. Logistically, Netflix would be unlikely to sell their own series to a competitor platform or network. Additionally, a new report by Variety claims that the once-rumored two-hour wrap-up movie is not happening , either.
Marling has not exactly condoned the protests, though she and Batmanglij did stop and give Young a bottle of water during her protest. Marling also quotes Young on her Instagram, implying she was moved by Young’s sentiment: “Algorithms are not smarter than us, they cannot account for love.”
Rowan and Young are aware of how they are perceived; a man on a motorcycle even stopped Rowan and criticized her for not protesting something more important. (The option he allegedly gave? “Republicans.”)
“Now that we’re so passionate about this, we can see ourselves protesting other things. A lot of us are shy and introverted, and don’t do well in groups, but we’ve really been inspired. We’re not just protesting a TV show. We’re cleaning up places — I think the hashtag for that is #GreenOA — and we’ve raised money for two billboards, but the rest is going towards a foundation that is helping trafficking victims. We’re looking into the [issues] the show has addressed and trying to address it ourselves. After this is over, we’ll move onto something else [people think is] ‘more important,’” explains Rowan.
To that end, Marling’s vision for the continuation of the series seems to be working.
“You're building something far more beautiful than we did because it's in real time with real people,” Marling wrote on Instagram. “The show doesn't need to continue for this feeling to."