It’s always a tricky thing to propose the existence of a storytelling trend when that trend is abstract and eternally relevant, but it does seem fair to say that certain sci-fi obsessions ebb and flow: In some recent years, apocalypse and/or zombies have seemed the relevant preoccupation, and in others, it’s been aliens. Zipping through dimensions or waking up to perceive a new reality are by no means new ideas—see Sliders, The Matrix, or even Alice in Wonderland. But the recent multiverse musings, taken together, start to feel like a boomlet.
Which means it’s tempting to offer theories for why now. The tenuous but seductive current-events explanation is easy enough. 2016 was a rough ride for a lot of people, and so just as certain portions of the entertainment world may have become ever-more-realistic, other portions have started to indulge the hope that this existence we’re all living in is not the only one. What’s more, thanks to this political moment, there are lots of mini-examples of simultaneous realities. Just today, The Washington Post is running two news stories telling competing versions of the same event in Congress, perhaps out of an attempt to pander to separate reader groups. It’s like the Upside Down for clickbait.
But the sturdier read may be to point to these stories’ evergreen appeal: All of the aforementioned works grapple, in one way or another, with death. The OA and Stranger Things spring from the culturally familiar trauma that occurs when a child goes missing, proposing that such a story can have an ending more fantastical than the grim one we’re used to. Falling Water touches on a similar theme with one of its main characters searching for her baby; Arrival also copes with paternal grief; Westworld zooms out to toy with the idea of reincarnation, resurrection, and immortality; The Good Place is all about death.
Perhaps, more than anything, these are all a secular take on the promise of the divine. Could not the Bible or most other religious texts be slotted into the same metaphysical storytelling tradition? The OA engages with this notion directly: Throughout, Prairie’s tales of afterlife and mystical enlightenment seem to waver in credibility; by the end of the season—mild spoiler—it’s not yet clear whether she’s really seen the other side or is just a false prophet. But the people listening to her story have faith. In a way, the people who care enough to keep watching the show need to have faith too.
They also, though, need to have a degree of skepticism, puzzling through clues to try and find the truth in a manner recognizable to TV viewers ever since Lost. The zing of The OA and other such works comes from the marriage of intellectual process and mystical escape; the appealing implication is not only that there is another place, but that we can understand what it is and how to get there. It makes sense: At a time of falling church attendance and talk of widespread spiritual crisis, fiction may be stepping in to offer some of the imaginative comfort that religion has long provided. Yet the new visions of things hoped for and not seen, as fits the era, presume to be rooted in knowledge rather than in faith.