Recurring Cast: Brit Marling, Emory Cohen, Jason Isaacs, Alice Krige, Scott Wilson, Patrick Gibson, Brandon Perea, Phyllis Smith
The OA has to be one the bravest series I think I have ever had the joy to watch. It says a lot about the power of Netflix and this new medium of online streaming where we can now have shows that think outside the box and deliver thrills that we wouldn’t necessarily get from offline television. Take the episode delivery for instance. On standard television, episodes are usually the same length. How I Met Your Mother is between 22 to 25 minutes, purposefully to fill an half hour slot with ad breaks included. Doctor Who episodes are 45 minutes long. BBC dramas are usually an hour on the dot. With Netflix, this rule is smashed to pieces. As show-runner Zal Batmanglij decides, an episode will be however long it needs to be, much like a chapter system in a book. Therefore the first episode might be a staggering 71 minute epic, as it sets up its pieces and starts the story off strong. However, later on, when the series has a specific point to get across in the episode and doesn’t want to pad anything out, the running time might only be thirty minutes. It is a strange experience to get into, but in retrospect, why the hell not? With Netflix’s style, every episode is available in one go anyway, so when the next episode is only a click away, why does the OA need to pander to the expectations of the past? Also, it is refreshing to see a show that doesn’t have to pad out scenes when it has already finished what it needs to say. It gives you the impression that the OA is exactly the show it wants to be.
Which is very important because the OA is a bloody weird show. It opens as a standard mystery thriller. In a sleepy American town, a girl is found running around on the motorway, threatening to jump off a bridge. At the hospital, it is discovered she is actually Prairie Johnson, a girl who disappeared at the age of 18. Here, she suddenly shows up calling herself the OA, with strange scars on her back and, here’s the kicker, when she disappeared she was blind. Now she can see with perfect vision. The show starts with her foster parents, a terrific Alice Krige as the mother with the Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson providing fine support as the father, trying to shelter their newly-returned girl from the outside world and herself. It is clear that Prairie is trying to get back to somewhere, searching for a person named Homer. She ends up gathering a group of five individuals from the local school, lost souls, drawn to Prairie’s personality, charm and mysterious aura. She sits them down and begins to recount her harrowing story. The show has been going on for 45 minutes at this point and only now do we get the opening credits sequence. What follows I won’t spoil, but it takes you on a strange, mystical journey as we learn what happened in the seven years she went missing. As the story continues down its path, it will lose some viewers on the way. This is not for the audience members who are not willing to take illogical leaps to get to the next part of the story. In a rather fitting metaphor seeing as the endgame of the subject material, this is a show where you need to take a few leaps of faith with the writers. Episode One has a single surreal scene that hints at how mad this show is going to get, but it never fully embraces the idea until we get to the halfway point. This is a very clever move by the writers, because it gives the show time to make us care for the characters and story. By the time the strange stuff starts happening, which may or may not involve interpretative dance, we are hopefully so invested in the characters that we aren’t tempted to jump over to a more generic Netflix show instead. The OA keeps you hooked through the shaky scenes with a mystery that is very hard not to put down. As weird as the show gets, it only really ever hints at what it is going to be, so you are transfixed at trying to uncover where the show is heading. Even when you’ve had enough of the madness, a part of you is still desperate to uncover Batmanglij’s conclusion.
As we are walked through the OA’s story, the show jumps back and forth to her assembled five followers. This is another risk by the writers. The OA’s mysterious past is a compelling tale of survivors trapped in a horrific scenario, pulling themselves through hell, as they thrive off a single goal that could mean escape. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is get dragged away from that to focus on some moody teenagers for half an hour. Surprisingly, although the first few asides are not what the audience want, they do grow on you. Brandon Perea plays the compelling Alfonso, a smart boy on track for great things, but with a horrible mother figure and an impending identity crisis he can’t quite shake. Then there’s Patrick Gibson, channelling his best Jesse from Breaking Bad impression and generally trying to fuck his life up. But there is heart to his performance and you want him to use the OA to better himself. The odd one out is Phyllis Smith’s schoolteacher who ends up dragged into the centre of the story. She is an interesting addition to the show, always looking so out of place with her social anxiety and general ordinariness, but in that, she becomes one of the more unusual hero figures in the story. It proves that not all heroes are athletic male figures, but anyone with conviction, which is, perhaps, what the OA is all about when ground to its bare bones. Also keeping these scenes outside of the flashbacks alive is the fact that we are vaguely aware that there is a mystery here too. It’s never as referenced as the main one of ‘why’, but it is there, burning away quietly. Why has Prairie assembled them? How can they help the OA finish her story? This is an answer that is apparently going to be solved on another season, answered with a rather open-ended finish. It offers a double-ended answer that definitely gives you pause to think. At best, it leaves you with the burning desire to watch a second season, something very important for a show this outside the box.
Final Verdict: A compelling mystery that does dabble in the surreal. However, its bravery deserves merit.