'The OA' Is a Strange, Haunting Mess

Netflix's newest sci-fi original loses itself within its own mystery.

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Dec 19 2016, 11:45pm

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Warning: Spoilers for all eight episodes of The OA ahead.

If there is one thing to learn from television in 2016, it's that Netflix—which has released over 100 originals this year, more than any other channel or streaming site—has the luxury of doing whatever the hell it wants. Netflix adheres to no genre or specific audience, instead providing viewers with everything from inventive sitcoms to gritty comic book adaptations, from true crime documentaries to 90s television sequels and "continuations" of existing shows. There's a whole collection of children's programming and stand-up comedy specials that mostly go unnoticed, as well as a Chelsea Handler talk show (renewed for 90 episodes) and Rob Schneider's attempt at making his version of Louie (Real Rob will air a second season next year, whether you like it or not).

Netflix is Peak Television at its worst (or best, depending on how much free time you have) but that generally means that there is always something interesting on the site that slipped by you the last time you checked. Stranger Things is the best example: a slow-burner hit that mysteriously premiered to little fanfare and then grew into a sleeper success. The most recent example is The OA, a series that was so purposely cloaked in mystery in the days leading up to it—not even a cohesive synopsis anywhere to be found—that it was frustrating before it even debuted. At this point, Netflix doesn't have much to lose—think of how much money it sank into The Get Down, or how Michael Bolton will have a "Big Sexy Valentine's Day Special" in 2017— so why not give creators the freedom to do as they please? We'll watch it, no matter how mixed the results are.

The OA, created by lovable indie duo Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (who also directed all the episodes), might become the most divisive Netflix original of 2016. To describe the show is to both spoil everything and sound like a crazy person in the process. Marling plays a young blind woman named Prairie (also called The OA) who disappears for seven years and suddenly returns, now with an abundance of scars and the ability to see, after jumping off a bridge. She begins to regularly meet with a group of five people—four high school students and a teacher, all of whom are sad in their own ways—who sit in a circle and listen to Prairie tell her harrowing story, a story that she won't even tell her adoptive parents.

This story begins with a near-death experience as a child in Russia (one that led to her blindness), then being adopted. After exhibiting signs of mental illness, Prairie is kept medicated for 13 years before running away to find her dead father and play violin in Times Square. After being captured by a sinister doctor (Jason Isaacs), she's locked in a glass cage with four other people who have had near-death experiences and are being cruelly experimented on. The captives learn "movements," basically a mixture of Tai-Chai, the capoeira in Bob's Burgers's "Sexy Dance Fighting" episode, and Sia's "Chandelier" video (the latter makes sense, since choreographer Ryan Huffington also works on this show). When deployed correctly, these movements can heal someone's illness or even bring them back from the dead.

How well you tolerate The OA will depend on whether you read its unrelenting quirkiness as fun or just desperate. Paz Vega pops up to play some guitar; Prairie eats a bird; people dance well enough to effectively stop a school shooting (an incredibly exasperating and cloying climax to the series).

What's so frustrating about The OA is how some great parts fail to form a complete whole. Batmanglij is adept at capturing the aching between characters, the desperation for human touch—Prairie and another captive, Homer (Emory Cohen) fall in love, but can't touch each other, leading to a romance carried on entirely through body language. The acting is especially memorable, particularly in Marling's smaller moments: her childlike wonder, her scared-deer reactions when someone touches her, even the way in which she clings to a wolf sweatshirt at a Costco. Jason Isaacs as Dr. Hap is as intriguing as he is creepy, Patrick Gibson as bully Steve Winchell portrays the depression hidden underneath his anger, and The Office's Phyllis Smith turns the sad older teacher character into something less clichéd.

Even some of the most hackneyed themes—the power of love, friendship, connection, survival, storytelling, and so on—find some nuance throughout, but these moments are fleeting and lost in the overall weirdness and purposely confusing feel of the series.

Like some of Netflix's other shows it's built to be binge-watched, so mysterious that you'll want to keep watching just to know what the hell is going on, even if you don't really think you care. The OA is hard to stop watching, and doubly so when it frustrates you, because it's so aware of the power of ambiguity. The post-shooting ending is fascinating and haunting, but it doesn't quite reward viewers enough for the confusion they've had to put up with for the previous eight episodes. Mostly, it seems to want to leave you just intrigued enough to come back for the inevitable season two.

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