Netflix has done it again, and by that I mean they’ve released an original show that has people talking. This time around, it’s The OA, and it’s worth a watch, albeit with some caveats.
I first heard about The OA from Netflix itself, advertised on their homepage, and before ever reading the premise, I was turned off. The banner looked vague and sci-fi, and with it being film awards season, I had a lot of movie-watching to do. I didn’t have the time to invest in another new TV show. But then my roommate watched it, and my other friends watched it, and started telling me to watch it, and pretty soon it felt like I was hearing snippets about it everywhere. My curiosity was piqued, and so on my day-off, I snuggled up and gave it a chance.
The premise is this—Prairie Johnson, a woman who’s been missing for seven years, suddenly returns. When she disappeared, she was blind; now she can see. She has strange scars on her back, and is either unable or unwilling to tell anyone where she’s been or what happened to her. And that’s about all I can say. What unfolds over eight episodes is strange and unexpected, will require a lot of suspension of disbelief, and will have you starting the next episode even as you scratch your head.
The OA is far from perfect, but it’s original and it’s ambitious, two qualities I appreciate in art. It’s also high-concept, but (to me at least) there was a growing emotional urgency that kept the plot from feeling too impersonal. Much of this is due to star and co-creator Brit Marling, who plays Prairie with an endearing mix of sincerity, wonder, and determination. The supporting cast is also fantastic, though perhaps underutilized, and you’ll recognize a lot of faces even if you can’t quite place them.
Emory Cohen, seen most recently as the love interest in last year’s Academy Award nominated film Brooklyn, plays Prairie’s friend and confidant, Homer. Indie singer Sharon Van Etten has a small part (and a memorable singing scene) in a number of Prairie’s flashbacks. Phyllis Smith, as in Phyllis from The Office, is heart-wrenching and full of compassion as a local schoolteacher. Riz Ahmed, who starred in both HBO’s The Night Of and the most recent Star Wars film, Rogue One, seems to be having his moment, and plays Prairie’s therapist. And finally, there’s Jason Isaacs, probably most well-known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, as Hap, an evil and very punchable scientist. In addition to the cast, the show boasts a beautiful score, a desolate setting (many of the scenes take place in an abandoned suburban housing development), and a mood that is paradoxically bleak and uplifting. It doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve seen.
Apparently, The OA has drawn comparisons to another recent Netflix Original, Stranger Things, and in some reviews has been criticized for its similarity. This I don’t see. Other than the fact that they both benefit from ensemble casts and include elements of fantasy and sci-fi, they have little in common, either tonally or thematically. I’ve also heard comparisons between the characters of Prairie and Jessica Jones (yes, the Marvel, Netflix Jessica Jones) because of their shared complicated captor/captive relationships, and their one-woman crusades. If this comparison is expressed as negative redundancy, I also take issue with it. Networks have churned out dozens of redundant cop/hospital/detective/lawyer shows, and suddenly Netflix gives us two shows within five years that share a female protagonist with a past, and people say “too much of the same thing”? I’m not accepting it. Sure, if you liked Stranger Things and Jessica Jones, you’ll probably like The OA, but all that means is that you have good taste and a desire for original storytelling.
The OA isn’t perfect. If there isn’t a Season 2, I’ll be left disgruntled and with a lot of unanswered questions. To some, the finale will feel totally out of left field, almost as if it’s the payoff for a different show. And the supernatural elements (like angels and the afterlife and a set of mystical movements that can heal people) might be too much for some people. (My father would almost certainly use the word “hokie"). But The OA, like its main character Prairie, has something to say, if only you’ll overlook it’s weirdness long enough to listen. And in 2017, can’t we all benefit from some open-minded listening?
Rachel Woldum is a former television snob who has embraced the medium as it has entered its Golden Age. Contact her at email@example.com