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Flash Mobs and Hunger Strikes: Inside the #SaveTheOA Campaign

Netflix’s cancellation of ‘The OA’ has left fans upset that the sprawling sci-fi fable will remain unfinished—but the movement to save it is as ambitious and unwieldy as the show itself. Will it make an impact?

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Earlier this month, Netflix canceled The OA, a science-fiction melodrama with a small fan base so devout it’s bordering on a religious order. Cancellations are relatively rare at the streaming behemoth, so at first fans suspected that the kibosh was a PR stunt. They can be forgiven for conspiracizing, at least in the context of their beloved show. The OA’s sprawling, dimension-hopping plot is difficult to describe without sounding like a human gravity bong, but here goes nothing: It involves angels, the Russian mob, a mad scientist turned serial kidnapper, Phyllis from The Office, a telepathic octopus, and the thwarting of a school shooting through the power of interpretive dance; it also contains a plot point that suggests that the show The OA exists in at least one of the alternate universes within the universe of the show. Also, Zendaya shows up. The storytelling choices made by series cocreators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij had been so consistently trippy that a faux-cancellation seemed well within the realm of possibility, especially since the second season had ended on a cliff-hanger, and last summer Netflix VP of original series Cindy Holland confirmed that the show’s story was planned out as a five-season arc. But Marling, who also stars in the show, told fans that it really had been canceled. The OA’s third season really was DOA.

After reality set in, fans began a campaign to reverse the decision, petitioning Netflix and plastering pleas on social media. “I feel like they will end up listening to us,” Ivan Rafael, a Luxembourg-based teenager who started a petition with nearly 80,000 signatures to bring the show back, told The Ringer. Rafael has plenty of historical grounding for his hopes that Netflix may reverse course. The #SaveTheOA effort is the latest iteration of an increasingly commonplace and frequently successful fandom ritual, and it has borrowed some of the strategies used by previous campaigns to resurrect shows. Like Chuck fans before them, The OA’s acolytes crowdfunded and donated to charities to draw attention to their campaign. Like the campaign to save Star Trek: The Original Series, The OA’s fans sent letters to the studio. They are also mailing feathers and mustard packets to Netflix, following several other campaigns waged with trinkets. In 2000, Roswell fans sent Tabasco sauce to WB executives after the show was canceled because one of its characters loved the condiment. In 2007, Jericho fans sent 20 tons of nuts to CBS’s New York headquarters and Friday Night Lights fans sent eye drops, mini-footballs, and lightbulbs to execs at NBC in bids for more seasons. “We were looking at fan campaigns to see what they had done, to see if we could do something different, which turned out to be very difficult,” said wedding photographer Mandy Paris, who created a website to proselytize for the campaign. “There have been a lot of fan campaigns.”

While The OA campaign hasn’t gone so far as crowdfunding the money for an entire movie (yet), as Veronica Mars fans did when the detective show’s creators launched a Kickstarter in 2013, they did pool together enough cash to buy billboard space in Times Square. They also coordinated flash mobs to perform the “movements,” a dance sequence integral to the show’s plot. “The five movements in The OA are kind of a sacred language,” said Jess Grippo, a dance instructor who organized the flash mob. The results were memorable.

If any show deserves an overly baroque dance tribute performed in complete sincerity, it’s The OA, which is literally about how dancing herky-jerky with earnest passion and a complete disregard for how ridiculous you look can save the world. The over-the-top goofiness is a fitting tribute to the most over-the-top Netflix Original. And while it’s hard to see a flash mob as anything beyond whimsical, other elements of the #SaveTheOA campaign have been startling in how directly they have culled from the playbooks of actual protesters. The level of organization is so impressive it made me momentarily glum that such a formidably coordinated call to direct action was in service of a wildly uneven two-season Netflix Original series and not, well, something else—clean drinking water in Flint or the abolition of concentration camps in the United States, for example. This is not to criticize these fans for their efforts; after all, a person can agitate for the renewal of their favorite show and also pay attention to plenty of other worthy causes. But the way that the #SaveTheOA campaign conflates activism and fandom to an unprecedented degree is as wild as any plot on the show. Whether or not this campaign works, it has taken the stakes of the clashes among fandoms, artists, and industry into a strange and shaky territory.

The group’s website outlines its multipronged campaign in meticulous detail, from a WhatsApp group for Brazilian fans to a tweetstorm to draw the attention of Ellen DeGeneres. If Netflix does not un-cancel the show by September 10, the fans are planning a new campaign to delete Netflix accounts. The plans are laid out further in Excel spreadsheets, in a Discord group, in comprehensive Reddit threads advising participants on social media optimization and public relations pushes in meticulous detail. In fact, Grippo had already organized a flash mob using the choreography from The OA in 2017 during a protest at Trump Tower. And part of the campaign has centered on fans doing good deeds to raise awareness of their show, including a push to pick up garbage and hashtag #GreenOA.

The campaign is so organized, so loud, and so stunt-driven that one couldn’t be blamed for suspecting what the #SaveTheOA group once did—that Netflix is behind it all, pulling the strings for PR. But as time has gone on—and because a company crowdfunding a movement directed at itself might very well be illegal—it’s become clear that not even the streamer would go to lengths like this.

Talking to fans who have participated in these actions, it is clear that they do not draw much of a line between agitating for a social cause and agitating for their favorite television show. “I feel less afraid now and think that any person, even someone who feels like a nobody, can make a difference,” teacher Nicole DeNardo Becktel said. One fan, writer Emperial Young, has adopted a far more intense and medically risky action typically favored by protesters focused on social justice causes. Young has refused to eat for over a week and is calling her movements a “hunger strike.” In a note on Instagram, Brit Marling thanked the people advocating for her show’s return and shared an anecdote about how she and Batmanglij had spoken with a fan protesting in Hollywood; while not mentioned by name, the fan was indeed Young. “You know, what I’m really protesting is late capitalism,” Young told Marling, echoing an argument she made on Twitter about her rationale behind the strike.

Young sees her campaign as a battle against algorithmic control of the arts. “I decided upon this tactic after the failed social media campaign to save Dark Matter, a show that was near and dear to my heart,” Young said via email. “Seeing how ineffective that was, I sensed I was about to witness the same lack of results, and I didn’t want that for The OA because the show means so much to so many people.”

Despite her conviction that she is doing the right thing, Young is not particularly optimistic that Netflix will listen. Other campaigners have a sunnier view. “I’d like to think that the effort we’re all putting in could make a difference,” Grippo said. “There’s gotta be something that comes of this.”

But what will come of it? When asked for comment, Netflix directed The Ringer to a previously published statement from Cindy Holland: “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.” That sure sounds like a no, but the #SaveTheOA team is gearing up for a second wave of protest actions if Netflix hasn’t relented by September 10. Based on the sheer volume of shows recently pulled back from the brink by finding a new network—Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Nashville, Cougar Town, The Mindy Project, Community, and Netflix’s own One Day at a Time, among others—there is certainly reason for fans to hold out hope that The OA might find another home, although its unconventional format and high production costs may complicate matters.

Most of the fans I spoke with stressed how happy they were to have found community in this project, whether or not it gets results. “We are having fun and have met so many people from all around the world,” Becktel said. “It’s like a weird family full of weird people,” Rafael said. And yet: One of those family members is refusing to eat until a corporation reverses its policy to finance, produce, and distribute a television show. There is a whiff of militancy amid the merriment.

While the show’s future is uncertain, the intensity of its fan campaign has showcased how much the relationship between fandoms and the stuff they love has changed. This isn’t about simple appreciation anymore; it’s about full-throated advocacy, about the conflation of self-care and entertainment, about the fact that even if Netflix doesn’t renew The OA it now almost definitely has to have internal meetings addressing how to respond to someone staging a hunger strike. It’s a plot twist so bizarre it’d fit right into the canceled show in question’s narrative.

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