Formally announced and trailered on Monday and released in its eight-episode entirety on Friday (December 16), The OA isn’t being pushed on creative pedigree or star power, but rather on ineffable allure and the hope that not talking about the show will, ironically, lead people to talk about it incessantly.
It’s a game that I can play as well, pitching The OA as Stranger Things meets Flatliners meets the more pretentious aspects of Sense8. The problem, of course, is that telling you what The OA is vaguely like is just another tease and telling you what it actually is is a recipe for disappointment, because after an enticing and somewhat infuriating build-up, The OA becomes something quite ludicrous as it stumbles toward a climax that is, if I’m generous, merely unearned and if I’m not being generous, a series of offensive overreaches.
The OA comes from creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the quirky indie team — she co-writes and stars, while he co-writes and directs — behind Sound of My Voice and The East. Neither film was a hit, but they’re both smart, vaguely chilly movies composed of big ideas, a certain formal claustrophobia and, for me at least, resolutions that lack the confidence of their initial hooks. As befits the theme of both movies, they require the audience to infiltrate a foreign world and then they rely on a dose of Stockholm Syndrome to coast to the end.
Hopefully, that’s a good enough sense of the Marling/Batmanglij style for me to tell you that The OA plays as a long form continuation of their film work, even if you’ve never seen their movies.
The show opens with a passerby filming a blonde woman jumping off a bridge. The woman survives and we discover that she’s Prairie Johnson (Marling). She’s been missing for seven years. When she left her adoptive parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson) she was blind and now she can see. The press dubs her The Michigan Miracle, but her lips are sealed on the nature of the lost years until she forms an odd bond with four high school kids — temperamental Steve (Patrick Gibson), brainy French (Brandon Perea), trans Buck (Ian Alexander) and Jesse (Brendan Meyer), who has a bad haircut and no parents — and begins to relay a story that goes back to her unique foreign childhood and then to the mystery of her absence.
The OA begins with an admirable disregard for episodic storytelling. The 70-minute premiere may set a record for longest duration before opening credits. It’s really more of a prologue, putting the pieces in position before launching the real story just as the first episode is coming to an end. It’s a novelistic approach tailored for binge-viewing, much more designed for the viewing habits of steaming audiences than most of what Netflix has done. It’s isolating, weird and unique.
Echoing the main character in figurative terms, the audience goes in blind on nearly every detail, right down to an explanation for the title, which I could explain after watching the whole series, but I’d prefer not to. The important thing is that Prairie has undergone a great trauma — she’s got horrifying scars on her back and who knows what kind of scars on her psyche — and episodes begin layering in one oddity after another. In the present, Prairie is out of place in a subdivision meant to recall a Spielbergian suburb gone to seed, more empty houses and strained families than cohesive units. This allows Prairie and her new wards to form an alternative family of misfits, which is also what is happening in her remembered past, which includes Emory Cohen as a former football star named Homer and Jason Isaacs as a doctor obsessed with the afterlife.
Even though Netflix has embargoed reviews until after The OA premieres, I’m hesitant to go into all of the things Marling and Batmanglij have on their minds here. There’s a science fiction side with shades of Altered States, featuring technology that’s both practical and primitive, somewhat inspired by real life studies into people who have had near-death experiences. There’s also a spiritual and anthropological component and while I referred to “family” units, they’re really more “tribal,” groups of people stripped of modern resources and bound to each other through the power of oral narratives — it’s not a coincidence that a character is named Homer — and other art forms.
You know immediately that Prairie’s past tribe and present tribe have been brought together for a reason, but the writers are in no rush to answer any of the broad questions that every viewer will probably be wondering after one episode. It’s hard to explain what anybody is doing in the interim, or what the writers think they’re doing. Going on a journey like this requires characters, but Prairie is the dominant focus and her lost confusion is allowed to define the entire tone of the series. Steve, Buck, French and Jesse get only a couple outside scenes apiece, which isn’t enough to explain why they become so totally sucked into Prairie’s story, why they become bonded together or why viewers should want to spend time with them. Only Gibson comes close to having a character — Steve’s a bully, but he’s needy — and so only Gibson gives a real performance and he’s responsible for the occasional intensity the show has. Buck and French are quietly inquisitive and so Alexander and Perea are superficially placid, while Jesse is the part of the group I kept forgetting existed at all. The best part of that side of the story is Phyllis Smith, as mournful high school teacher, getting considerable use out of the vein of sadness that allowed her to embody that emotion in Inside Out.
Things are more animated in the story Prairie is telling because, to put it simply, things are actually happening there. Or maybe it’s just that Isaacs effortlessly conveys a moral ambiguity and inquisitiveness that the rest of the cast lacks. Cohen, so charming and charismatic in Brooklyn, is back to looking as uncomfortable as he did on Smash, but that’s probably because so many of the plans he’s a part of in The OA are even dumber than Leo’s petulant quest for an adopted sister on that NBC musical.
Viewers are likely to suspect that the ideas at the center of The OA are very intelligent, but the actions driving the plot are each dumber and more illogical than the next. There’s a limit to how many times you can make me (and probably other viewers) go, “Oh come on. What sense does THAT make?” before the contract between creator and audience is severed and in a show this driven by mystery, the contract is essential. The end of the fifth episode features the biggest reveal yet of the purpose for everything and I’m afraid that my only reaction was laughter and not of the good kind. Taking a big step back, I could explain why the thing these characters have to do in order to make this bigger thing happen — how’s that for not spoiling things? — fits the story Marling and Batmanglij are telling, but in the moment, I could muster only incredulity. I don’t doubt that there will be some culty approval from audiences whose suspension of disbelief remains intact, but mine was not. This is another place where having characters with personalities and, heaven forbid, senses of humor makes all the difference in the world.
The OA is a show of utter and ultimately self-defeating earnestness that also can’t follow through on its grand reveal once it comes. The first five episodes are all roughly an hour, slow but at least reasonably structured, and the last three episodes are significantly shorter, choppier and hamstrung by lame “And that’s why this character was introduced” twists and a distinct absence of follow-through on the show’s key ideas. By the eighth episode, I didn’t care about anybody’s fate and I was watching for a payoff I’d joked about in my notes, knew was coming and yet still managed to be sillier than I imagined. All goodwill and intrigue from the first four episodes was gone.
As frustrated and unhappy as I finally was by The OA, I still want to say this: I love that Netflix (or any other TV or streaming entity with similar guts) is willing to do a show like this. I haven’t loved anything Marling and Batmanglij have done yet, but I find their style and concerns to be recognizable and distinctive. If Netflix is going to throw money at soulless throwback garbage like Fuller House or at gritty superhero show bearing the Marvel brand or even at the tremendously executed prestige drama of The Crown, knowing that both of those are recognizable sure-things of [very] different kinds, I have great admiration for also taking a chunk of money to a pair of obviously gifted indie auteurs and saying, “Make us something weird” with no guarantee that what you’re getting in return is going to be good or sellable. And trust me, when you see the way The OA resolves itself, you’ll know that Netflix execs were closing their eyes, crossing their fingers and praying it would play. For me, it doesn’t and I can’t recommend the show at all, even knowing that there’s a niche that will embrace it, but I enthusiastically recommend Netflix keep trying this kind of thing, especially if its resources truly are as boundless as they often seem to be. The successes should outnumber the failures.
Cast: Brit Marling, Emory Cohen, Scott Wilson, Alice Krige, Phyllis Smith, Patrick Gibson, Brendan Meyer, Brandon Perea, Ian Alexander, Jason Isaacs.
Creators: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.
Premieres Friday, December 16 on Netflix.