There was a strange, other-worldly promotional picture on Netflix the day The OA was released. Brit Marling was lying in a pool of celestial light, her hair wild and eyes vacant; there was something eerie and uncanny about the image. It’s not often the first trailer of a show is released only a week before airing and it was impossible to get a read of the plot or tone from the short synopsis provided. I was intrigued. I hit play.
Hours later I emerged. What had I just seen? The series had managed to lure me in, disturb me, compel me and comfort me all at once. It was unlike anything I’d seen before. The OA is less a series to watch than it is an experience to undergo and I would encourage anyone to take the leap. I will be considering what makes The OA such a bizarre and beautiful hit and, to make it as spoiler-free as possible, I will only be discussing characters and situations as they are presented in the series’ opening episode.
A young woman who had disappeared seven years previously is found on a roadside and taken to hospital. Her mother rushes to her side whilst her father explains to the nurse that their daughter, Prairie Johnson, has never seen them until today. She left home blind. Now she can see. When Prairie returns it is clear that whatever ordeal she has been through is far from over; she is trying to access the internet to look up a person named Homer and begins a video diary in which she directly addresses this person and wonders how she can get to him. When her high school tear-away neighbour Steve provides her with a Wi-Fi router in exchange for a favor, she asks him to rally a group of five people to meet her at a local abandoned house. As night falls, an unlikely group of four school boys and their middle-aged female teacher gather around Prairie as she begins to tell them her story; where she has come back from, why she needs their help, what the strange scars on her back mean and why she refers to herself as “The OA.”
Part of what makes this series so special is its use of storytelling. The majority of the series takes the form of The OA telling the group about her experiences and it is from these tales that the show’s stand-out, striking visuals are brought to life. Her story is one of love, loss, despair, and discovery and is interrupted in places when the characters’ present day lives must resume. We see the day to day life of The OA since her return, her broken and bewildered parents and the struggles of the four boys and their teacher Betty Broderick-Allen, or ‘BBA’ for short. The format ever increasingly smudges the line between the OA’s story and present day and will bring some viewers to question whether this is a blurring of tall tale and reality; of fiction and truth.
For every moment I was forced to leave the upstairs of the abandoned house and face – I won’t say “reality” so I will say “the day-to-day” – I was aching to return to The OA’s story. This is expert scriptwriting from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij because not only are they making their audience feel part of the group of five whose lives are consumed by her tale but they are also highlighting the power of charisma and the spoken word. The OA draws in her small group – and her Netflix audience – and intoxicates them with her compelling story; an ability that can later be taken into moral consideration when The OA recalls meeting someone similarly intriguing and charming. “The biggest mistake I made was believing that if I cast a beautiful net I’d catch only beautiful things,” she laments in the trailer.
In this series The OA once again casts her beautiful net and catches us; an unlikely bunch all brought in by the same story. It’s a story being told to a group being told to the world. Has she made a cult of us? Are we to trust her or believe her? It’s uncertain and undoubtedly a test of our own character. The series is a mystery and if you went in anticipating any one narrative style, you’d be guaranteed to have to alter your expectations pronto.
At first glance The OA looked to be a science fiction series; the mystery woman depicted among the starry night with evidence of having been taken, scarred and her sight cured. It fits the bill and I wouldn’t say it doesn’t belong to the genre, but it also reads very much like a drama at times and more of a thriller at others. It is a series that cannot help but evoke a powerful reaction in its viewer, be it love or disappointed exasperation. The OA’s story is theatrical and sprinkled with magic, myth, and peril and in some key scenes it wouldn’t be surprising if the show loses some of its audience. Pivotal moments that some may find to be visually out of place or even cringe worthy in their dramatic content will be viewed by others as moments of beauty and necessity. The continuation of the story becomes a question of whether you, personally, ‘believe’ and once you complete the series it will be even more poignant when you consider that, ultimately, you will take in The OA’s story if and when you need it.
It all sounds rather deep, doesn’t it? No doubt helped along by my being suitably cryptic to avoid spoiling the twists and turns for you. All I can stress is that this is not a series that anyone can really know for sure is ‘their thing’ unless they give it a try and you’ll either be swept away, tentatively continuing, or rolling your eyes and looking for another new show. What I have described as a sci-fi meets drama meets thriller also takes on an existential, spiritual tone too and, if you allow it, you will be both unsettled and moved by this unpredictable series that will refuse to leave you once it is over.
The visuals in The OA are extraordinary, although you will have to take my word for it as the best is still yet to come by the time the credits of the first episode roll. The series is one that appeals to the senses; it gives your eyes plenty to feast over but also uses Rostam Batmanglij’s otherworldly score and diegetic music within The OA’s story to enchant and disturb. Marling and Batmanglij have created a bold visual world but acknowledged through an understanding of blindness. Sensory deprivation is a key concern of the plot, which stresses throughout the need to feel the touch of another person, to feel one’s emotions and to feel freedom.
The OA required viewers to take a leap of faith when it was released on Netflix in a shroud of mystery and it is this faith that I would encourage you to carry through the series. If you allow the story in, the rewards are plenty. This is a story within a story about life, death, hope, and what might be beyond. It is a love song to storytelling and both an encouragement of and a warning against listening; the very thing The OA had to rely on in the absence of her sight. It is a series that explores the limits of what a person can take and what drives people to fight on and a reassurance that isolation of any kind can be shattered with a few kind words from another living soul.