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Netflix’s latest, The OA (which dropped on the streaming service out of nowhere a la Beyonce’s Lemonade), is another unique sci-fi show for the network following Sense8 and Stranger Things. Series co-creator Brit Marling stars as Prairie Johnson, a blind woman who, after disappearing for seven years, returns with her sight restored. Now referring to herself enigmatically as “The OA” and refusing to talk to the authorities, Prairie assembles five damaged locals to reveal her experiences to and potentially save others currently in the same position she was.
Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company and with each episode directed by Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice and The East – both starring Marling), The OA has some very solid production values. The show consistently maintains its beautiful but clinically cold atmosphere – no doubt on account of Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij’s (the director’s brother) subtle but effective score. Meanwhile, the series’ filmmaking, at times, is superb. For example, during a long flashback to a time when Prairie could not see, Batmanglij mimics the sensation of being blind. He does this by having characters who are speaking to the protagonist not appear on-screen, emphasising how different it is to solely communicate without visuals.
Marling, who, as well as starring and co-creating, wrote the majority of the episodes, builds her central character a fascinating and unique mythology – filled with eccentricities that each could make up a movie of their own. There are Russian oligarchs, conspiracies, a school bus crash, afterlife angels, emigration, adoption, mental health issues, subterranean incarceration – all coupled with her lack of sight in a heady and ambitious mix.
Although the show does hit similar beats to Netflix’s other sci-fi shows – a minor sub-plot regarding a transgender character (Ian Alexander) feels similar to The Wachowski’s work on Sense8 while the plot focusing on human experimentation and missing persons shares DNA with Stranger Things – The OA is its own beast. It’s not as showy or bright as the former and it’s not as nostalgic or accessible as the latter. Aesthetically, it feels more like a crazy sci-fi premise shot like an unsettling American indie in the vein of Marling and Batmanglij’s previous collaborations.
For the most part this is to be commended as the series feels gritty and authentic as opposed to Netflix’s previous output in the genre. Yet, occasionally Marling and Batmanglij push a little too hard to make the series feel “real”. For instance, second lead Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson) – a local bully and drug dealer who lives near Prairie is presented as being troubled and misunderstood. Yet, his psychopathic and homophobic tendencies make him extremely hard to share any shred of sympathy with. Plus, a sex scene introducing him features dialogue no one on Earth would ever say. One is to assume that Batmanglij and Marling were trying to capture the gritty verisimilitude of The Wire but missed the mark widely.
However, the series’ central mystery, the strong direction and great performances – Jason Issacs in an antagonistic role is some of his best work to date – are enough to help the show overcome its occasionally wonky script, filled with many faux-philosophical musings – “It’s about you and Steve and the play cast of two setting classroom over many dimension”- ?!?. At its best, The OA is a blend of the sterility of Mr. Robot, the heady sci-fi of Richard Kelly or Shane Carruth and the wonder of Steven Spielberg. It’s not a blend that always works but it’s fascinating and when it succeeds, it’s bold and beautiful.
The OA is streaming on Netflix now.