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TV Review: Netflix’s ‘The OA’

Variety logo Variety 12/16/2016 Sonia Saraiya
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It is hard to take “The OA” seriously.

That statement can be applied both to the new Netflix drama, a mystery-soaked excursion through time and space, and its titular character, the OA — played by executive producer and writer Brit Marling. The OA, who once went by the more average name Prairie Johnson, reappears after seven years with mysterious scars, a confusing story, and — strangest of all — the ability to see after years of blindness. Now back home, she finds a cadre of unlikely companions and tries to explain to them what has happened to her.

None of it makes any sense, but it is captivating anyway. She has a long story to tell, and half of her audience’s energy — and ours — is spent in trying to grasp if it is real or just the delusions of a crazy woman. The OA — both the person and the show — is self-indulgent, maddeningly vague, and takes itself altogether too seriously. The tone has a way of alienating the audience — how do you willingly suspend belief, listening to someone who doesn’t seem to think it’s strange that she’s an angel? — and it makes “The OA’s” broadest flights of fancy feel very cheap indeed. It would be easier to fall under the spell of this dark, twisted, and mystical yarn if it did not, so frequently, indulge in storytelling choices that sound like ridiculously unself-aware New Age Mad Libs: setting a death and resurrection scene to Majical Cloudz’ “Downtown,” battling violence through interpretative dance, eating a live animal to gain spiritual insight. Just when you think you might understand what is happening, Paz Vega appears, portentously strumming a guitar.

“The OA” wants to blur the lines between myth and reality, between suburban ennui and tribal spirituality. It’s a noble endeavor, and one that could yield beautiful storytelling. But often in “The OA,” the lines do not seem blurred as much as trampled through mud — as if children have been unwittingly left in charge of tending the fences between the sacred and the profane. Despite having the best intentions — and technical skill that is at times breathtaking — the story of “The OA,” the thing it is trying to be about, is little more than pretty much nonsense — self-indulgent, self-serious psychodrama. At its most profound, “The OA” offers up a grand unifying theory that is identical to “My Little Pony’s” tagline: Friendship is magic (and you, dear viewer, can define magic however you want).

To be fair, friendship is magic — or, to be more exact, the ability humans have to connect to each other, even and especially in the darkest moments of our lives, frequently ends up being our salvation. “The OA” is at its strongest when it is about the unlikely bonds drawn between people, and repeatedly finds storytelling avenues for bringing together makeshift families. The show chiefly operates in two timelines — the present, where the woman once known as Prairie is re-adjusting to suburban life in Michigan; and the other in which a Russian child becomes blind, loses her family, is adopted by another, and then ends up in captivity for seven years. Part of the reason that companionship is so important to the OA is because her life is particularly fraught and tumultuous, all due to one odd quirk: When she dies, it doesn’t quite take.

Near-death experiences (or NDEs, as the show comes to call them) make up the bulk of “The OA’s” internal mythology. The OA should have died dozens of times over — by drowning, mostly — but instead, she manages to glimpse the astral plane, have conversations with spirit beings, and gain arcane knowledge, before returning with a thud back to her body. It’s hokey, but to the show’s credit, it is able to render these vaguely cheesy concepts into elegant visuals. The spiritual plane is filled with endless stars; the experiences of death and resurrection are genuinely horrifying.

Indeed, one of the reasons it’s hard to dismiss “The OA” outright is because it is so technically accomplished. Co-creator Zal Batmanglij directs every episode with straightforward elegance, and the basement where the OA is imprisoned — one of the show’s primary set pieces — is a fascinating metaphor of production design, set up with glass cages, running water, heavy metal, and lab equipment that doubles as torture devices. As is the case with so many fairy tales and myths, the core of the OA’s story is a very dark journey of suffering, layered with the brightness of magic, mysticism, and young love. The show excels at exacerbating the whiplash between the possibility and horror of its most spiritual asides, establishing magic as transcendence only possible through the gauntlet of suffering. And though it never excels on this front as well as, say, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it still hits on some recognizable truths: Miracles happen in the darkest places. Hope springs eternal. Love keeps us alive. And yeah, friendship — mutual acknowledgement and recognition and support — is magic. The show’s most affecting group are the four high school students and their teacher who become unwittingly drawn to the OA. Patrick Gibson is particularly fantastic as troubled teen Steve— a character whose mind seems frequently lost to frothing anger, but still manages to be a damaged, sympathetic character. Phyllis Smith, from “The Office,” is another highlight, as long-suffering and easily caricatured teacher Betty.

But these strengths indicate “The OA’s” weaknesses, too — because despite braiding together a portrait of Midwestern aimlessness that is intimate and recognizable, the show loses the thread in what seems like deliberate carelessness. It’s admirable, on one hand, how much sincerity the crew behind “The OA” threw into their work. In the 13-page production notes sent to critics — “The OA” is nothing if not wordily well-intentioned — Marling and Batmanglij discuss attending schools throughout the Midwest and being particularly moved by young men who seemed without purpose or guidance. That understanding of the teenage male experience comes through in “The OA,” in surprising and illustrative ways. But it is difficult to understand the thought process that transforms that research into the final plot twist of the last episode. Without spoiling it, suffice to say that the show stomps on its own carefully built credibility with a cheap ploy for dramatic relevance. It makes for a kind of stunning, climactic scene, one that builds on everything we’ve learned before. But it’s not, necessarily, the good kind of stunning.

It is, on some level, more than enough that “The OA” tries so hard and with such sincerity. “The OA” is fascinating and adventurous, both with formal limitations like episode runtime and narrative experimentation. (Using dance from Sia’s “Chandelier” choreographer as a form of spellcasting is an inspired device, no matter how hackneyed the storytelling gets.) Its earnestness will speak to a lot of viewers, and the unfurling mystery will speak to more.

But “The OA” is offering a story that cannot be thought about too deeply without falling quickly to pieces. The show wants to sidestep rational knowledge, in favor of truths that are felt or known intuitively; to use dream logic to draw on a fundamental, shared humanity. This is intriguing, if rooted in any college curriculum on metaphysics — but it seems to not understand that there is more to stories, generally, than a sequence of feelings that resemble dreams. There’s a reason that the film “Contact” is more than just the intensely beautiful reveries and visions that Jodie Foster has through the wormhole; we tend to pick apart theories and truths, and like construct narratives that challenge philosophies. As an exercise in vision, “The OA” is exciting. As that other thing — a television show — it’s an especially cryptic attempt to say very little of consequence.

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