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Tag: tv

The OA: Part 2

While The OA did, as I suspected, leave the liminal space of the fantastic and dive headfirst into actual supernatural narrative in Part 2, the show improved so much that the particular tension from an unreliable narrator wasn’t needed. We could still argue about whether the show is original enough to be worth watching for most SF/F buffs–and about exactly where that line falls, now that the plot is complicated enough that I’ve never seen all those particular tropes combined in just this way–but I’d rather point out some of the writing techniques the show used well this time.

An actually mysterious beginning

Part 2 opens with characters we don’t know, in a dimension we don’t know: specifically, with a private eye, a desperate client, and a missing girl who is a female version of Buck, one of the OA’s listeners in Part 1. This beginning wouldn’t work half so well without Kingsley Ben-Adir as the private eye protagonist, inhabiting the character so completely and (it seems) effortlessly. He has some help from the writing, though. In this new season, we start again with a mystery, but a mystery seen through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the answers. Remember, the mystery in Part 1 is the story of Prairie’s captivity, but Prairie knows her own history already, and it’s hard to over-emphasize how that drains a narrative of urgency. Even when Prairie arrives in Part 2, she doesn’t have the memories of her alternate self, so she doesn’t have the answers, either. Without answers, our main characters can ricochet from stressed to desperate and back again. Thank God.

So why start with Karim, our private eye, and not the characters we know? This allows the writers to employ a technique that science-fiction and fantasy novels use all the time: the gradual widening of the world. Personally, this is one of my favorite things about speculative fiction, because it’s often tied to a sense of wonder that comes with each step farther into the unknown. The idea is to start very simply, with a situation that is small and somewhat ordinary (in this case, a bare three characters in a well-known fictional plot: private eye, client, missing) and to gradually let the story open up into something bigger and weirder. It’s as if the audience is climbing a mountain through layers of cloud and each new break in the fog allows them to glimpse a wider world that is not only stunning, but also redefines each previous view. They could only do this with a new character, because our returning friends are already deeply steeped in weirdness.

An end to static situations

Exactly how many static (read: unchanging) situations were featured in Part 1? Let’s see: there’s Prairie’s captivity in the past; the boys listening to her story in the present, and the gradual revelation of how horrible their home lives really are without any real change to them; and Prairie’s adoptive parents’ doubts about her sanity (and who can blame them, when she literally goes blank in every scene with them in it?). In fact, looking back, Part 1 seems to completely confuse “bit by bit revelation” with “plot.” Sorry, but no. Learning new information is exposition; goals, conflicts, decisions, and disasters that change the situations the characters are in (leading to new goals, etc.) is plot. In a book it would be much harder to disguise exposition as forward motion, but since actors were acting it out–wow! It kind of looked like plot. But when you compare it to the ever-changing situations in Part 2, the steady progress towards ultimate goals and confrontations, it’s easy to see the difference.

Of course, the devil’s advocate in my head is telling me that Part 2 could move so quickly only because of all the set-up and character development in Part 1. To which I say, yes, but it’s better to do them at the same time. Go watch Battlestar Galactica, Killjoys, Dark Matter, Stranger Things, etc. to see how.

The OA: Part 1

Though I didn’t find the first season of this Netflix show as compelling as, say, a great Syfy primetime creation such as Killjoys or Dark Matter, I was interested in a couple of the techniques the writers used to keep me watching (other than the pandemic).

First, the two stories–the lives of the present day listeners and the story of Prairie’s kidnapping and captivity–balance each other. Though many of Prairie’s fellow captives lacked character development, and are somewhat cookie-cutter in their shape and predictability, the present day group includes nuanced characters with many sides to them. In fact, what passes for plot in the present day story is basically the slow revelation of details about these characters’ lives. As you can imagine, this present day story is a bit lacking in urgency, so that is provided by the sensationalist plot of the past story. This kind of balancing is trickier than it looks, because it involves allowing both stories to be lacking on their own, yet complete together. It would’ve worked as intended for me if “OA”–,I won’t spoil it for you–had turned out to be an original concept and not some thing we’ve all heard of before. Now to the fun stuff.

The much more enjoyable tight rope act this show demonstrates actually has a name, used to describe the classical French literature that first made it famous: la fantastique. This genre is not synonymous with fantasy; instead, it is fiction that deliberately makes it impossible for the reader to tell what is real. There is always a supernatural explanation of events which is in someways easier to believe, and a realistic interpretation which involves more convoluted explanations. Often, as in The OA, the doubt springs from an unreliable narrator (so fun!). The realistic explanation is that Prairie is, and always has been, crazy; the supernatural explanation is…well, no spoilers.

Since there is a second season/part to this show, I have a feeling the writers are going to jump off the high wire, and the truth of the supernatural explanation will be confirmed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Of course, if you really want to play with an unreliable narrator, you should read Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth. But you’ll have to start with the excellent Gideon the Ninth, or you won’t even know when to be suspicious of Harrow’s narration.

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