At its face, Netflix’s new show “The OA” — released with no advertising or notice — is another version of “Stranger Things.” Both feature a nosebleed-prone female protagonist with mysterious powers encountering evil scientists and alternate dimensions. However, the similarities stop there. While both are fantasies, “The OA” has a more ambitious premise and approaches its story with a greater sense of realism. Created by lead actor Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, both veterans of mystical storytelling, the show’s intriguing, often baffling narrative is anchored by a strong central performance and convincing direction. The show’s overly ambitious reach, however, eventually led to “The OA” overstaying its welcome halfway through the season.
In the first episode, we are introduced to Prairie (Brit Marling), a blind woman who disappears for seven years and inexplicably returns home with her sight. It’s a lot to take in, but the show blossoms into an utterly intriguing mystery. One that, during the first half of the season, unfolds at each stage with more wonder than the last. “The OA” follows Prairie’s story both in the present and in the past as she reveals the course of her complicated life to a small group of followers, five misfits from Prairie’s home town.
As she guides her followers deeper and deeper into her life story, Prairie begins to change their lives in the present. It becomes clear that Prairie understands each of her followers better than they understand themselves. Watching these characters fall under Prairie’s spell feels like watching the formation of a cult. The major difference, however, is that the audience also falls under her spell. Prairie has an inexplicable aura which draws people to her, and Marling is exceptional in the role, portraying Prairie’s childish vulnerability as well as her moments of resolve and profound insight.
The concept behind “The OA” is certainly a tough sell, and the show walks a fine line between intrigue and ludicrousness. However, “The OA” manages to remain convincing through the richness of its storytelling. It is difficult not be to drawn in by the wealth of unique elements, from Prairie’s small-town home, a dim, realistic portrait of an American community, to the surreal landscapes of an otherworldly environment that Prairie has visited. The only consistent element guiding us through this mystical, vertiginous story is Prairie. Director Batmanglij weaves together the genres of fantasy, realism and science fiction and blurs the lines between them. This allows “The OA” to tell its spiritual story in a way that might otherwise have been laughable.
The show’s blissful intrigue and wonder, however, couldn’t be sustained past the first four episodes. While the first half of the season builds up a compelling spiritual mythos, “The OA” begins to delve into dime-store philosophy and new-age mysticism in lieu of drama. Obsessed with trying to prove its originality and insightfulness, “The OA” loosens its tight grip on its audience and begins to turn transparently absurd. And, yet, Prairie tells her story with such clarity and sincerity that her loyal followers keep coming back, desperate to find out what happens next.
Runs: Full Season Available on Netflix
Starring: Brit Marling, Emory Cohen, Scott Wilson, Phyllis Smith, Alice Krige, Patrick Gibson, Jason Isaacs
Created By: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij
Image Courtesy of Netflix