[Editor’s Note: The photo gallery above contains spoilers for “The OA,” but the review below does not.]
The first three episodes of “The OA” almost feel like excerpts from different shows.
Opening on a woman as she runs through traffic and jumps off a bridge, a knowing gaze given to the young boy recording from his car right before she falls, the premiere feels like a mystery meant to be unraveled. Then, just as the first hour is almost up, the show’s title finally pops onscreen as we’re whisked away — quite literally, given the sweeping panorama of a frozen foreign city — to a new place and time. The structure of the storytelling shifts, and suddenly we’re within a fairy tale. But by the end of “New Colossus” (Episode 2), we’re part of a thriller, hoodwinked along with one of the series’ subjects and taken on a new path.
I say it almost feels like we’re watching different shows, in part because the narrative itself is easy enough to follow — even if the missing links in the woman’s history lead to many questions — but more so because “The OA” is the work of two people forming one voice: Brit Marling, who also stars, and Zal Batmanglij, who directs every episode. Assisted by a small writing staff (of more women than men), “The OA” feels like a singular, focused effort, which gives it an addictive confidence, even when it overreaches. Such an aggressive reach for the eight-episode first season eventually leads to the story tripping over itself, but the imagination is to be admired more than the end result derided.
It’s hard to describe “The OA” without getting into spoilers, as most of viewers’ enjoyment will come from learning what the heck is happening. After all, part of the fun here is the surprise element: how Netflix sprung this long-planned original series on viewers without any buildup until the week of release. But I feel safe providing most of the details Netflix has already released: “The OA” tracks Prairie Johnson (Marling), a woman who’s been missing for seven years and returns to her home after an apparent suicide attempt. Though happy to see her parents, Prairie refuses to talk about what happened to her or why she jumped off a bridge.
Despite making the national news, it’s her neighbors who prove the most interested — and the most pertinent to Prairie. Steve (Patrick Gibson) is a troubled high school student who’s on the brink of being sent to military school, and he’s the first to become enthralled with Prairie. In search of help to con his way out of banishment, Steve enlists her, who in turn enlists him. From there, a group is formed, an adventure ensues, and Prairie’s story is slowly unveiled.
As is the case with most science fiction — perhaps the only all-encompassing label for an otherwise indefinable series — “The OA” won’t be for everyone. Its refusal to tackle head-on the issue at its core, death as a finality of of life, is frustrating for anyone seeking real talk from a show so fixated on its fictional science. Prairie’s mysterious past is fascinating as a fairy tale: She creates a system of belief based in science with intricate details exemplified visually. Dance meets yoga, wormholes cross with the afterlife, and scientific study blends with religion. Such blending of big ideas creates questions, and “The OA” doles out answers quickly and effectively, making the simple entertainment value of putting the pieces together quite satisfying.
But when the puzzle is complete, the resulting picture lacks the profundity it strives for, and things get… a little kooky. While the explanations hold up, investing in the fictional beliefs of the present-day characters is harder to back. Steve and his friends are living in the real world, rather than an altered reality told via flashback or an unimaginable scenario no one can really understand (see Episode 3 for more details). When they function independent of Prairie, dealing with the pressures of youth and complicated at-home relationships, they feel authentic. When they start acting under the influence of their creepy new neighbor, we’re meant to believe in her as much as they do. We don’t, in part because there’s a distinct separation between the wild story Prairie tells and the simple ones we experience in the present day.
Such disparity comes to a shocking head in the final moments of the season. The haunting backdrop of the ending isn’t matched by the outlandish actions in front of it, creating an unintentionally hilarious close that you want to cover your mouth during; embarrassed by your laughter when the sincerity of the effort is so clear. Worse yet, the climactic event feels like an unearned reflection of all-too-recent tragedies, which could threaten to offend sensitive viewers and ruin the overall viewing experience entirely.
Fairy tales can function as parallels to reality, but “The OA” wants to live in the real world even when it’s actively trying to escape it. The imagination is admirable, as are the direction, performances, and much of the formal elements (a special shout-out to the production designers). Marling and Batmanglij prove excellent storytellers, creating elegant, independent arcs crossing multiple genres; each of which are engaging for all the right reasons. It’s only when the mystery ends and a commitment needs to be made — to the exploration of its big ideas, to immersion in its science fiction, to a stance on the power of belief — that this ambitious story falls short.
For all its evident talent and special moments, “The OA” just doesn’t come together.
“The OA” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.