Stranger Things is a great show. It seemingly came out of nowhere and for the most part was universally loved. And how could it not be? The show was retro, it was cool, yet it was different, and it surpassed many demographics to be a bonafide hit. But guess what? There's a better show on Netflix that hits the same nerve. And many of you haven't seen it yet.
The OA (starring/co-created by Brit Marling) came after Stranger Things. At least, that is how Netflix released it. So it would be very easy to watch The OA and see it as being behind the curve. And, if you look at both shows from the lens, maybe The OA is. However, if you simply hold up both shows with unbiased, indifferent scrutiny it would be hard not to say that the OA (created by Zal Batmanglij, who also directs) is the better show.
I say this because, taken as a whole, The OA is making statements, asking questions, and exploring themes that are, frankly, too strange for Stranger Things. Again, Stranger Things is a very well done show. However, where the Duffer Brothers scratch the surface of grand ideas, The OA is in and of itself a grand idea.
One of the most interesting things about this show, and something that speaks to the freedom of platforms like Netflix, is just how confusing The OA can be. Stranger Things, even though it is from Netflix, is in many ways everything we have seen before just strung together differently. The OA feels fresh and alive because it takes the idea of traveling through dimensions, and literally makes it something comprehensible and incomprehensible at once. Where Stranger Things takes two dozen movies from the 70s and 80s and puts them in a blender, The OA only hangs itself on the thinnest skeletal remains of The Breakfast Club and Helter Skelter.
So for those of us who have seen both shows, sit back and enjoy 9 Reasons Why The OA is Better than Stranger Things. For those that have seen one but not the other, watch the other and reread this list. And if you haven't seen either show, could you please write your own list of what it's like to live under a rock.
The OA has more sophisticated storytelling.
The first episode of The OA is deliberately baffling. It honestly feels as if Zal Batmanglij and Co. didn't want viewers to have a clue...At first. One literally doesn't know who the star of the show is. Is it the awkward teacher? The girl (Brit Marling) that just returned after being gone for 7 years? Is it the punk kid that loves a girl that will only sleep with him? Just who are we supposed to follow here? Then it zig-zags back and forth between these and other characters, eventually going into a title sequence some time before the first episode ends. It would have been very easy for the show to get simpler from there. It could have told us these people's stories in a faux confusing way. Nope. Not The OA. It stuck with confusion for the rest of the season. Compare that with Stranger Things. The Duffer Brothers have created an incredibly cinematic show. They have underscored this with a soundtrack that perfectly compliments it. However, for all of its solid presentation points, it just isn't showing us anything we haven't already seen. This is part of Stranger Things cachet. In these confusing times that's probably why something so familiar was so well received. The OA is more fluid and as a result it is freer. It can challenge us more. The stories are literally not bound by space and time. As such they are more intricate and, at the same time, gloriously uneven. Brit Marling, who co-created this show, really seems to like having all the characters revel in this.
The OA has a more epic premise.
Stranger Things did a very good job leaving us scratching our heads. The OA does this as well but for two completely different reasons. For whatever questions we might have about Stranger Things, we genuinely know what happened in the beginning, middle and end of the story. We have a solid understanding of who these characters are, their motivations and what we can expect from them. So the questions we have is what will happen to these characters? The OA is a meditation on humanity. Zal Batmanglij seems to be positing the idea that if our energy is harnessed correctly, human beings can literally do ANYTHING. It isn't just about how we interact on the surface. It is about the energy that we have and how that energy plays off itself. From there we see how it expands and allows for inter-dimensional travel. This is simply the premise of the show. It says nothing of what happens with the characters, their complexities and how they play into that premise. You may have liked Stranger Things more. However, from purely a story standpoint, The OA is truly a grand undertaking. And if you've seen Another Earth, which Brit Marling also starred in, then you know that this is a running theme with this actress. The gamble is huge. It isn't a given that it will even pay off. Is there even a pay off for a show that allows characters to die in one scene and then be resurrected through "movements" in another? I honestly don't know the answer. One thing I do know, is that Stranger Things may be grand in its presentation, it just can't compete with The OA on cerebral, transcendent level.
The OA is original, Stranger Things is all homage.
As mentioned above, a big part of Stranger Things success is the fact that it plays to our nostalgia. The 1980s are really big right now. We are living in historic times. One might always be able to say that, but, not since I've been alive, have things been so divisive and yet so hopeful. Stranger Things has a little bit of this. However, it is ultimately a compendium of sci-fi tales from the 1980s. They have been glossed up, done with style and grace, but people watched the show because they love how they are reminded of Spielberg, The Goonies and those creepy sci-fi movies like CHUD. The OA doesn't rely on any of that. It is truly a show from and for the new millennium. The OA is always looking forward. Zal Batmanglij seems to have gone out his way to make this one of The OA's core points. Even though a lot of the show is spent looking back (in a tribal way that recalls the ancient ritual of sitting around a fire telling stories), we are always wondering where it is going? Who are these characters like Khatun? Why is the OA eating a bird of energy in her dream? Is it even a dream? The OA is really pushing itself and viewers to accept new storytelling. Sure, the grand theme idea, the stories of myth and the hero's journey are in The OA. They just are being done in a way that hasn't ever been seen before. Themes, ideas and tropes are being created specifically for this show.
The OA isn't as contained as Stranger Things.
Set in Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things is tied to this place in the way that the stories of Twin Peaks are tied to that fictional town. This isn't a problem. Stranger Things works so well because of it's anchor in this familiar looking milieu. The OA takes place on earth and, at the same time, it takes place in multidimensional arenas, and from there it even seems to hang its hat in the afterlife. Part of the great fun is wondering where Brit Marling's character of Prairie/The OA will end up next. All of this is amazing, special, and not like nothing we have ever seen before on TV. For Stranger Things, being contained isn't a problem for the story of each season. However, one can only wonder how many seasons it will be able to call Hawkins home? For The OA, the possibilities of where this show could go are literally limitless. There were times in this first season that I was wondering where the show might land. There is a freshness to The OA. It is almost like the show is saying that anything can and will happen. Now, unlike Stranger Things, The OA requires several leaps of faith. Ultimately, this is probably why Stranger Things will be better received. The show, while tipping its hat to Twin Peaks, is ultimately extremely accessible in a way that David Lynch's masterpiece was not. The OA is better in this regard because the story of The OA, while in some ways small and contained, is told with little regard for why space and time matter. Zal Batmanglij seems intent on showing us that we are only bound by the here and now if we believe we are.
The OA has more nuanced characters.
Mike, Eleven, Dustin, Lucas, Jim Hopper etc., are all great characters that we want to follow in Stranger Things. However, as far as being nuanced, Steve Harrington is the only character that really keeps us guessing. Contrast that with the characters of Prairie, Hap, Homer, Steve, French, Buck and BBA, and there isn't a contest. I am not saying the characters in The OA are better than the the characters in Stranger Things. I am simply saying that, if you want to be challenged by what a character can do and be in a story, The OA gives you more bang for your buck. First of all, we see a bit of Buck but I am not even sure we've scratched the surface on this intricate character. What about Steve? One minute he'd die for The OA and the next minute he's stabbing her with a pencil. How about Broderick-Allen (BBA)? Who is this woman? How does she trade her energy from being a wicked teacher to somebody who is part of the gang of five that is going to help the OA? This says nothing of French. How is he able to straddle the worlds of being a role model student, with the world he lives in at home and outside of school? I could continue but I want to leave something on the table for newbie viewers. The reality is that Stranger Things has solid characters. However, they are fairly set in who they are. Whereas the characters in The OA (particularly how Brit Marling plays the title character) are, like the story they are mired in, extremely fluid at all times.
The OA out-stranges Stranger Things.
Stranger Things and The OA have some striking similarities. The nosebleeds, a female protagonist, human energy as a way to drive the story forward, a group coming together to save another group, etc. However, as Strange as Stranger Things is, it doesn't require the amount of logic leaps that The OA does. Quite simply, the things that make these two shows strange are fundamentally on different wavelengths. Stranger Things is weird because of the lore, mythology and unknown realm that is The Upside Down. However, The OA's tale is mythic and, in many ways, beyond this universe. Zal Batmanglij appears to have created a world that heretofore has never been seen on TV. While it certainly isn't a prerequisite, but to really appreciate The OA, it seems like one might want to have a certain degree of faith in something in their lives. There is a level of open-mindedness that might not hold up to those who want to scrutinize every little thing. To appreciate The OA, one needs to be all in with this story. They can question it but they have to accept the answers they are given. Conversely, the Stranger Things audience may not be 100% on board with this. Heck, they may not even buy the story in that show either. However, that is where all the pop culture tropes will allow them to not get hung up. Most likely, they will simply say that Stranger Things is just being like an 80s movie. Many of those films didn't make sense and nobody cared. The OA doesn't have that luxury. Brit Marling plays The OA as someone with a great knowledge who still, through everything she's been through, has the mind of a child. This is why taking that leap of faith on this show, and accepting all the oddness of it, makes it that much more rewarding.
The OA revels In its own confusion.
In Stranger Things, we see our characters in a fairly linear way. Sure, there are moments where we might find out some back story, but the plot is given to us in a way that we aren't unfamiliar with. Contrast this with The OA whose story and rules change as the show moves forward. Something that ends as the finale of one episode, may not be picked up until the end of the next episode. Or, we might start an episode following a character, only to reach a climax that brings into the world of another character. Honestly, when this show first started, I thought that the character of Steve was the main person we would be following. I came to realize that his story was one of many layers within the main story. The OA is a show about a group effort. Stranger Things is a show about a group effort. However, in Stranger Things the people that work together are all fairly similar. In The OA, Prairie, the leader, assembles a rag tag group of people who are summoned via a YouTube video. Not only couldn't these people be more different, in many ways they are really at odds. And, in an odd way, showing us these complex characters, and all their confusing quirks, only highlight how similar they (and thus WE) all are. Creator Zal Batmanglij almost demands that we accept our differences for therein lies our true strength. The editors on this show seemed to be pushing the idea of how far they could go. It is almost like they want to take the story and make viewers work for it. If this show aired every week, there would be no way to keep up with it. The fact that we can watch it all at once is what allows us to really follow it. Stranger Things revels in a different kind of confusion. We want to know what happened to Will Byers. In The OA we just want to know what is going on AND how it all ends. And the big pay off comes not at any one point in the show, but by staying with it.
Dr. Hap's Prison makes the Upside Down look like Disneyland.
The Upside Down is a parallel dimension to the one that we humans inhabit. It looks like this dimension but it is not a good place to be at all. The fact that there is a monster roaming around in this dimension makes it that much worse. In The OA, the main character is kept in a "prison" in which she and others are forced to take part in near death experience experiments. Essentially, Dr. Hap kills them and revives them. They live like animals in tiny spaces. Then, whenever Dr. Hap feels like it, he knocks them out and proceeds to experiment on his unwilling subject. In my opinion, Dr. Hap's Prison is a much worse place to be because you are contained to one spot. He can kill you whenever he wants, and you literally have no control (at least that is the idea). Sure, The Upside Down isn't a great place, but as we saw in the show, people at least have a fighting chance. The monster in the film is beatable. Yes, Hap is beatable, but what he is able to do takes longer, the effects last longer, and you are almost never able to be put out of your misery. Also, as fantastical as the story of The OA may seem, Hap's prison is a very real place. Places like this probably exist all around us. Brit Marling and all the other actors who are trapped there, take very great pains to play it this way. One only wonders what director Zal Batmanglij's directive to the actors was during these scenes? The Upside Down may or may not exist. Chances are it only is a dangerous place in the realm of fiction. Imagine living years in one tiny space? Think about dying, only to be revived, and then being returned to that space. The OA isn't scary in the way that Stranger Things is scary. At the same time, that doesn't make it any less terrifying.
The OA has a better cliffhanger.
As great as the ending of Stranger Things was (and it was really good), the ending of The OA sat better with me for some reason. It was timely (school shootings, sadly, seem to be epidemics), it played well into the story of The OA, and it gave us an idea of where the show was headed for a probable Season 2. Now, the ending of Stranger Things may have been confusing, but it was understandable where everybody was in the show. Jim Hopper seems to have found his mojo again. Joyce Byers is no longer confined to her home and she has both kids back under one roof. The young characters are back together playing Dungeons & Dragons, even if it's clear that there is really something wrong with one of them. Sure, we wonder about the fate of Eleven, but could there really be another season if we didn't? All of this works but that is just it... it only works. The OA ends with our main character being killed? Or, was she? Who is the shooter? It made sense that it might be Dr. Hap coming from another dimension. Or, could the shooter be The OA herself? I really haven't researched this online because what's the point? Nobody really knows right? The hope is that we get these and other questions answered in the next season. However, there just seems to be more at stake. The OA seems willing to take risks. It wants to subvert what we expect from the TV shows that we watch. At the same time, it does wrap up the season in a way that feels truly different. We know what happens to Brit Marling's character (at least in this dimension... if it is in fact taking place in THIS dimension). With Stranger Things we know that the story isn't over. If it was would Will Byers be throwing up monsters in the bathroom sink? As for The OA the show could end and, while we would still have questions, we would accept that the five main characters were brought together to continue The OA's work. They will now do her job even if we didn't see another moment of the show. And in this one moment, creator Zal Batmanglij crystallizes the idea that we all have bigger purposes in this world than we can possibly realize.