How best to describe The OA, Netflix’s new … well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out here — how to describe this thing.
At other times, it feels as if co-creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij discussed the plot of Lost with a time traveler at a Y2K-themed end of the world party, only both Marling and Batmanglij were incredibly high, then wrote down what they could remember the next day in between shifts at their New Age bookstore jobs.
At still other times, it reveals itself to have a mythology that’s equal parts X-Men, book of Revelation, Sense8, and those installments of The Family Circus where the dead grandparents return to watch over their grandchildren as angel ghosts.
Have I mentioned that as soon as the word “angel” is uttered, you’ll say, “Oh, I know what The OA stands for,” then spend roughly seven hours waiting to be proved right? Have I mentioned that the show’s big dramatic climax involves very exciting tai chi? Have I mentioned that the cast is stacked with people you’ve loved in other things?
The important thing is that The OA defies description. To talk about it is to rob it of some of its weirdo power. I can’t precisely tell you if I liked or hated this show. I don’t even know. I liked some of it. I hated some of it. But I enjoyed watching it because I couldn’t believe it was a real television program.
In that sense, then, there’s only one way to describe The OA: This is the peak of Peak TV.
The one question you’ll keep asking while watching: How did this show get made?
The OA exists because the television industry has expanded so rapidly that there’s a huge surplus of content providers and not enough content to keep them all fed. In that sense, Netflix deciding to make a show with Marling and Batmanglij (who were behind the intriguing indie film The Sound of My Voice) makes sense. The show also boosts the producing power of Brad Pitt and his team at Plan B, who have been behind a lot of great films (Selma, The Big Short, etc.).
So from that point of view, Netflix would have been stupid not to make something with this team. And superficially speaking, The OA is the sort of thing Netflix fans could really get into.
It follows a young woman named Prairie (Marling) who disappeared seven years ago but is discovered jumping from a bridge into the water below. She survives, returns to her parents in Michigan, and then starts mumbling about how she’s “the OA.” Oh, and Prairie used to be blind, but now she can see.
She won’t talk about it with anyone but a small group of teenage boys (and their teacher), to whom she relates her life story. This leads to the first indication that The OA won’t be like other TV shows: At 57 minutes into its first episode — which runs 70 — the show’s opening credits unspool, and then it cuts from 2016 Michigan to 1987 Russia. Sure, I thought. Right. We’re doing this.
From there, The OA cuts freely between the OA telling her story and Prairie’s upbringing, first in Russia, as the child of oligarchs, then in the United States as the adopted daughter of a childless couple who found her in an attic. (I promise you: When I sound like I’m making up a plot point from this show, I am not.) In the meantime, she nearly dies in a school bus crash, which adds a whole other plane of existence (where she communes with a goddess) to the tale.
Batmanglij directed the series, and he has a good eye for contrasting the humdrum reality of the OA’s return to where she grew up and the grand, epic sweep of her backstory. The show’s mythology is occasionally enjoyable in its sheer audacity, and the cast is really great, particularly Jason Isaacs as a mysterious man Prairie meets, and Phyllis Smith as a teacher who falls under the OA’s sway.
But the series fails one crucial test: the “oh, just come the fuck on” test. And to explain why that’s the case, I’m going to have to go into a little more detail. Spoilers follow. (Yes, I’ve barely spoiled this series so far.)
All of The OA’s best qualities can’t obscure the suspension of disbelief it requires
If you’re wondering where Prairie went in her seven missing years, I can tell you: She was kidnapped by a man played by Isaacs, who holds her in a glass cage in his basement, along with other people who’ve had near-death experiences. He’s trying to establish contact with the other side. So he keeps drowning them, over and over again, hoping to do just that.
Anyway, as Prairie and her compatriots (whose number slowly swells to five) are killed, many, many times, only for the astral plane to spit them back up because it’s not ready for them yet, they slowly begin to realize that they are being gifted with “movements,” which will give them certain superpowers when performed in tandem. In theory, this is a nifty idea; in practice, it ends up looking more like people doing angry aerobics at each other as dramatic music swells on the soundtrack.
I want to believe that you could make a good TV show about anything, and I love, in particular, the way Batmanglij and Marling convey the abject horror of having your face covered with a container slowly filling with water. Yes, this series spends way too long with a bunch of people trapped in glass cages — like, several episodes — and it starts to take on some of the claustrophobia of its setting. But the revelations are well-paced, and the general idea of near-death experiencers having the key to humanity’s future has promise.
But in the end, it’s just too much. The idea that the only thing humanity needs to unlock other dimensions of power is interpretive dance is one that requires much, much more grounding than The OA is willing to grant it. You either go with it, because you buy everything the OA (the character) is telling you — or you don’t. And I didn’t.
The series banks everything on the weird tonal whiplash that results from flashing between the mystical otherworldly bullshit of the OA’s story and the more realistic tales of her attempts to reintegrate with the little town she grew up in, but it never finds a way to make the mystical bullshit believable. There’s a potentially good reason for that, but it arrives far too late to make a difference. And when realism and mysticism converge in the finale’s final 20 minutes, it’s absolutely ludicrous. (The angel dancing foils a school shooting — but only because it distracts the utterly baffled shooter long enough for someone to knock him down. Nevertheless, a stray bullet hits The OA in the heart!)
And yet I’m still glad I watched this thing. Its very existence serves as proof that TV is more than willing to take wild swings on ideas that barely rise to the level of “half-baked,” and there were several moments per episode when I could feel myself falling under the sway of whatever kooky dream Marling and Batmanglij had cooked up for me, only to be pulled out.
There’s something in The OA, even if that something is complete and utter dross. It’s too well-observed in its best scenes — usually the ones featuring the teenage boys trying to navigate this weird spiritual awakening they’re going through — to be entirely written off, and I admired its willingness, from time to time, to call bullshit on itself. But those moments are usually too little and too late.
The show opens with a woman jumping off a bridge, then proceeds to give her a bunch of followers who really would jump off a bridge if she asked them to. Some viewers will join them. I’m still standing on the bridge, though, hoping everybody else is having a great fall.
The OA is streaming on Netflix.