'The OA' Season 2: TV Review

Unlikely to win new fans, nor alienate the old.
3/22/2019

Few shows are more set in their identity than Netflix's ridiculous, self-serious and often utterly audacious drama, which returns for a second on-brand season.

Is Netflix's The OA the most profoundly silly show on television or the most sillily profound show on television?

Yes.

Premiering over two years after its first season launched as a mystery-shrouded stealth release, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's mind-bending drama is hard to be ambivalent toward. Either you're like the characters within the show, willing to set aside preconceived conceptions of logic and narrative and reality to take a fantastical and wholly earnest leap into something much of the outside world would call lunacy, or you watched the first season with a growing sense of incredulity and frustration until the finale made your head explode, possibly with rage.

As difficult as it may be, I remain almost proudly in the middle about The OA even after watching the first six episodes of the second season, which takes several formal leaps forward, several storytelling leaps back, remains willfully confounding at every turn and is still capable of conceptual fits so head-scratchingly audacious that I'm able to admire and laugh at them at the same time. The only thing I'm sure of when it comes to The OA is that the process of watching and experiencing an episode is unlike the viewing of any other show on TV and, good or bad, there's value in that.

I'm still pissed off about the end of last season. No matter how you explain it or excuse it, a climax featuring the use of dimension-spanning interpretive dance to stop a mass shooting is fundamentally unearnable and I don't think the show came close. The second season picks up from that finale without dwelling on it, but also in the immediate aftermath. Kinda.

Because it wouldn't be The OA without initial disorientation, the premiere begins with the introduction of Karim Washington (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a Bay Area detective enlisted by a Vietnamese family to find a missing teenage girl. Karim's investigation leads him through a series of architecturally fascinating sections of San Francisco and into an underbelly of teens obsessed with an augmented reality puzzle-driven phone ap. The game offers potentially large prizes in crypto-currency and it may have ties to a Silicon Valley recruitment feeder. It also may be making players go mad or disappear.

It's a while before Prairie (Brit Marling) appears, having some sort of panic attack or spell on a ferry. See, in the aftermath of the shooting, Prairie's consciousness made a jump and she now finds herself back as Nina Azarova in a dimension in which Young Nina never got on that school bus, never had a near death experience, never went blind, never was adopted by Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel (the late Scott Wilson, lovely in one scene), etc. The differences in this dimension are embodied by a really cheap gag showing that even though it was 2016 still, Joe Biden is president for reasons that are never even slightly explained, nor are there any other comparable big picture dimensional changes, which makes the Joe Biden joke extra odd.

Amid her disorientation, Nina/Prairie is quickly dispatched to a clinic on Treasure Island, where she encounters Dr. Percy (Jason Isaacs) and Homer (Emory Cohen) in very different situations, these involving research into stuff like lucid dreaming, shared delusions and other fun blither-blather that dovetail with the series' ongoing interest in Native American mysticism, talk of Original Angels and more. 

Meanwhile, back in the original dimension, Steve (Patrick Gibson), French (Brandon Perea), Buck (Ian Alexander), Jesse (Brendan Meyer) and BBA (Phyllis Smith) are shattered by what they went through and for various reasons they're about to go on a road trip.

Oh and nobody does The Movements until the second episode, but plenty of people and things do The Movements, so if you're only watching The OA for The Movements, definitely prepare to be moved.

The idea of somebody trying to jump into this second season without having watched the first makes me laugh.

The first season was already structured as a bifurcated narrative — Prairie and the high school gang and Prairie and her captivity with Dr. Percy — so it isn't shocking that Marling and Batmanglij would want to raise the stakes with what is now a trifurcated narrative that's about a bifurcated timeline. 

The trifurcated narrative, though, puts a lot of strain on viewer attention, or at least that of casual viewers, whom I've already said don't exist, so really I just mean, "Me."

The Karim storyline is solid in large part because the show's use of San Francisco locations is just terrific. Batmanglij and the other series directors are very clever when it comes to using actual landmarks like the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, an assortment of distinctive properties and the natural geography of the area to give this season much more visual specificity than the more intentionally nondescript Everytown locations last season. If those settings lent the first season a disjointed Spielbergian flavor, there are more shades of Hitchcock to these episodes, specifically Vertigo, complete with Marling as a reasonable Hitchcock Blonde and the Prairie/Nina binary substituting for doppelgangers. Setting that aside, though, Karim's missing girl plotline is very nondescript and the early stages of Prairie's story put a lot of stock in audience investment in the Prairie/Homer relationship, which I didn't care about in the first season and definitely didn't take more interest in here.

The same is even truer of the return of the suburban kids now without Prairie (in their dimension) to steer them. Steve and Buck were, at best, half-developed characters in the first season and French and Jesse were even less than that, so asking them to carry a storyline on their own is immediately a questionable idea, made more so by how separate the writers keep those stories initially. The fourth and fifth episodes are where the San Francisco story begins building to a series of truly nutty revelations. I can't say with confidence that they're good revelations, but they're revelations that had me taking notes in all caps. Then the sixth episode goes over to the kids exclusively and all interest I had in the tail-end of the season vanished into the ether.

Even when I don't think The OA is all that good, which is often, I never doubt its sense of itself and all of the new casting in the second season matches instantly, with the possible exception of one piece of premiere casting that's so distracting Netflix has asked critics not to reveal it. Even in very brief appearances, actors like Melora Walters, Liz Carr and The Florida Project star Bria Vinaite add their particular versions of oddness to the mix. It's like how I still can't decide if Marling and Isaacs and Smith are giving traditionally "good" performances, but I know they're giving exactly the performances that The OA asks of them. Ditto with the intentionality of the far larger number of performances I'd call flat or monochromatic or traditionally "bad."

Those things that happen in the fourth and fifth episodes are really wild and not as alienating as interpretative dance at a mass shooting, and they're the sort of things that only The OA would do and that only The OA would do in complete, unironic seriousness. They're so unironically serious that one crucial and somewhat ridiculous scene is set to Live's "Lightning Crashes," possibly the most bizarrely self-aware rock song ever recorded and to have what's happening in that scene set to that particular song is the most OA thing The OA could possibly have done. And, let's be honest, everything The OA does is utterly and purely The OA, which is probably the most admirable thing about the show.

Cast: Brit Marling, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Emory Cohen, Phyllis Smith, Patrick Gibson, Brendan Meyer, Brandon Perea, Ian Alexander, Jason Isaacs

Creators: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij

Premieres Friday, March 22 on Netflix.