You might find yourself asking why review The OA at all. Firstly it came out at the end of 2016 with little advertising by Netflix at all almost as if they were trying to bury it, much like Amazon did with Zoe. Secondly its not a film, at least not in the conventional sense. Finally, The OA is an experimental project, something that is different for every single viewer because our mind doesn’t do well with gaps so we fill them with whatever we choose so me trying to encourage or discourage you from watching it may be pointless because this is Marmite film making to say the least.
The OA tells the story of Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), a young woman who went missing year prior who re-emerges after being witnessed jumping off a bridge. When her parents come to find her in the hospital they discover their once blind girl can now see, a miracle Prairie seems reticent to explain. However that is the least fantastical element of her story as she reveals it to 5 seemingly disconnected people from the neighbourhood she grew up in over the course of a few days, a few days that might just change her life and the lives of those around her. Oh and yeah, she likes to be called The OA now (hence the name).
To start I’d like to answer why I’m writing this and try to explain why i felt going back and rewatching the series was important, for me at least. It would be quick and easy to say that the second series may drop soon and I wanted to remind myself of all of the events of the first chapter before the 2nd began but like I said, that would be too simplistic. If I had to explain it, which I do, I started this after all, I would say that the films and shows that catch my eye the most are the ones that latch themselves onto a theme or an idea without ever telling the audience.
The OA at its core is about belief, faith and religion but never does Prairie or any other character enter a church or pray or even say the word god. I think that its an important topic to discuss and The OA gives you both sides of the coin. The idea that belief can take you to places you never though you could go, highs that can only be achieved by reaching out with the absolute certainty that faith provides, isn’t new but its as important today as it was 50 years ago, maybe even more so. The other side is that this certainty can push you to lows you couldn’t imagine, to a pit of darkness that can only come from thinking you are doing the right thing and being proven wrong.
This dichotomy is what gives The OA its core drive and while this is a science fiction show, it’s really more about religion. If you are looking for answers you may find some but much like with the ending of both Damon Lindelof shows Lost and The Leftovers, the answers are the least important thing about the piece. It wouldn’t surprise me that Marling and Zal Batmanglij created The OA with some inspiration from the previously mentioned series as both are also at their core about belief and people making their own decisions about what to put their faith in.
In the opening episode Prairie brings together her 5 disciples (for lack of a better word), a group of lost souls all looking for something to add meaning to lives that lack any. Be it Steve (Patrick Gibson), a teenager suffering from anger management issues who is just looking for a way to get past his rage, to connect with people in a way his parents fail to with him, or Betty (Phyllis Smith), Steve’s introverted teacher who sees in Prairie someone whose bravery forces her to do things she doesn’t want to, a trait she so admires but struggles to find in herself.
Each of her disciples are fleshed out over the course of the episodes but pegging them down to a specific character is pointless as Batmanglij and Marling evolve their characters quickly and seamlessly through their interpretation of Prairies story. Prairie herself is another story as what she is thinking and feeling never truly comes into perspective. Sure, though her narration you get an idea of the life she led and the horrors she endured but she never really lets you in far enough to see the whole board, a conscious choice by both the character and the writers.
There is a line in the opening episode which saw me through the series as she begins to tell her story she asks her audience to ‘pretend to believe me until you actually do’ and that oddly enough helped me through some of the series more outlandish moments, the moments that require that leap of faith she asks of you right off the bat. By the time the show enters its 3rd episode and Prairie has truly witnessed horrors but also experienced her first miracle the series really gets going.
The introduction of Jason Issac’s villainous Hap gives the series a new perspective as the series takes a deep dive into a discussion on the afterlife and what comes next. Hap is determined to find out and he uses Prairie to do it. This not only adds a sense of danger and horror to the series, a tension missing in its opening episodes but it adds a new element to the dual timelines on display. Not only is Prairie a guide for these lost souls, she is just as lost as they are, a victim in her own right trying to take back control of her own narrative however she can.
The first series is constructed in this format so that by the end you can make your own decision about Prairie’s truth. Is it something you can take on faith or is it all bullshit, the deluded ramblings of a broken mind. Yet again, the answer to this question may not be as important as you think, depending on how attached you are to empirical evidence, the tangible vs the abstract if you will.
All this aside the series boasts some killer performances by Marling and Issacs in particular but also from Gibson, Smith and Emory Cohen as Prairie’s fellow test subject Homer, a role easy to overlook in someone elses hands. The appearance of veteran actors Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) and Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) as Prairie’s parents is a nice touch despite being underutilised.
Ultimately this is unique storytelling that pulls you in with its originality and hooks you with its message. It’s rare to watch something on TV that doesn’t feel like something else and while there have been some comparisons between this and fellow Netflix Original, Stranger Things its hard to see why. While Stranger Things trades in nostalgia of the days of ET and Spielbergian wonder, The OA shoots for something that will stick with you after you are done with it, an original thought worth pondering. If Prairie’s story was a meal I think you will be full and satisfied for a long time after.