TV: The OA (Season 1)

For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I went into The OA (Netflix, 2016) with a degree of internal resistance. Is there something too New-Agey about it? Is it too artsy-fartsy? Does its wiggly genre content occasionally feel silly? Possibly all of these are true, but ultimately I didn’t care: I quite liked this unusual series.

Brit Marling stars as Prairie Johnson, a young blind woman who resurfaces after a seven-year disappearance with her sight miraculously restored. Returned to the custody of her baffled parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson), Prairie reacclimates, becoming a controversial new figure in her sleepy midwestern town. The mystery of Prairie’s lost years eludes her parents and the FBI, but she does lure in a new inner circle of misfits to whom she can tell her story: violent drug-dealing Steve (Patrick Gibson), stoner Jesse (Brendan Meyer), meek transgender boy Buck (Ian Alexander), poor straight-A student Alfonso (Brandon Perea), and unhappy schoolteacher Betty (Phyllis Smith). They gather regularly in an abandoned house, where Prairie spins a wild tale involving near-death experiences, alternate dimensions, and reality-warping superpowers. Because of their own personal struggles, the group relates to Prairie, which helps them overcome their skepticism to become believers in her tale. Ultimately they join her in a mission to save her fellow captives, including the young man, Homer (Emory Cohen), with whom she fell in love while in captivity.

The OA isn’t exactly flawless science fantasy, occasionally coming across like a literary writer’s attempt to explore SFnal ideas for the first time. Indeed, the script is at its least convincing when directly addressing the specifics of its skiffy concepts. But what The OA does get right is its emotional content, and this is more than enough to carry the narrative. Prairie’s experience is fraught with emotional abuse, a traumatic prolonged captivity that the narrative explores with sensitivity and insight. Will it resonate with actual sufferers or PTSD, or people who have undergone difficult experiences? I can’t speak to that; it did strike me that it might be interpreted by some to sensationalize the suffering of its characters. But from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like it has its heart in the right place.

Meanwhile, its deliberate, mesmerizing direction is quite compelling. Director Zal Batmanglij—a frequent collaborator with Marling, with whom he co-wrote the series—does effective work, particularly in the way he conveys a haunting, melancholic character to the bleak subdivision where Prairie’s story unfolds. The pace will surely be too slow for some, but it’s effective for the material, and the structural ricochets from present to past and back again are seamless and effective. So are the visual shifts from mundane reality to eye-popping flights of fancy. By and large the acting is solid from everyone, especially Jason Isaacs, who couldn’t be more perfectly cast in a nuanced “mad scientist” role, and brings next-level credibility to what could have been a cartoonish villain.

I have reservations about giving this one a blanket recommendation. I’m not schooled enough in trauma or disability to know how well those aspects were handled; it may be problematic for certain viewers. From time to time, the script trips over itself trying to be eloquent. But it’s also a show with some truly powerful and beautiful moments, and the way it gradually reveals its mystery is wholly engrossing. Best is the inspiring way its invests you in the struggles of two different created families, in two different timelines, simultaneously. The emotionally satisfying climax risks looking ludicrous, but somehow manages to work. This one may well be polarizing, but for me it was earnest, unusual, and emotionally affecting.

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