THE OA Review
Already a comparatively weird year for original programming considering the surprise success of STRANGER THINGS, Netflix decided to double down on prestigious “auteur” television with this eight episode head-scratcher from the brother of the keyboardist for Vampire Weekend (Zal Batmanglij). With all episodes directed by Batmanglij and four episodes written by him, THE OA is entirely a product of his creative power, and boy howdy, what a strange, unforgiving place his brain must be. As has been well documented, Netfix and I aren’t exactly the closest of bedfellows, so I must first make an attempt a conciliation and admit that I don’t hate THE OA. It is easily the ballsiest original programming decision made by any of the streaming giants thus far, and its existence itself is encouraging in terms of facilitating ambitious storytelling. That being said, it’s often a disaster, albeit a beautiful one.
Many reviews of THE OA seem to tiptoe around what it’s actually about, claiming that the incredulity you’ll experience when you reach a conclusion is part of the experience. Well, sorry folks, but I think you deserve to know just what you’re getting yourself into. At the end of the day, THE OA is about a group of six people who use interpretive dance in the hopes of opening up a portal into another dimension.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of crazy. Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) was born a small Russian child. She was killed in a terrorist attack on a school bus carrying the children of powerful members of Russian society, but traveled to an alternate dimension, where she met Khatun (Hiam Abbass), a mystical sorceress. Khatun gave her her life back, but took her sight in exchange. Prairie was then adopted by Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige) Johnson, before going off in search of her father as a young adult. While searching, she’s picked up by Hap (Jason Isaacs), a scientist studying those with near death experiences in the hopes of proving there’s an afterlife. However, Hap proves to not be the man Prairie believes, and locks her up with other test subjects, whom he regularly kills in order to study their brain waves, before reviving them in a never-ending cycle. Most of the show involves the story of how the group escapes Hap’s clutches via interdimensional interpretive dance.
But, because nothing about THE OA wants to be traditional, the majority of the show is delivered in flashback. You see, in the present, Prairie has escaped Hap and is back in her hometown of Michigan, intent on freeing Homer (Emory Cohen), a fellow test subject she fell in love with. In order to do this, she must assemble a group of five misfit toys: Betty (THE OFFICE’s Phyllis Smith), Steve (Patrick Gibson), Jesse (Brendan Meyer), French (Brandon Perera), and Buck (Ian Alexander). She hopes that if she tells them her story and teaches them the requisite interpretive dance moves, she’ll be able to travel back to Hap’s facility and free Homer from his clutches. Oh, and she can see now after however she reappeared in Michigan, which causes a media frenzy and fallout which she must navigate. Oh, and she also might be making everything up.
Whew, alright, we made it. So, believe it or not, THE OA is not as terrible as all that makes it out to be. In fact, I can’t even really say it’s bad, more just frustrating. This is due in large part to its full and total commitment to being strange to the bone. Even somewhat comparable to THE HAPPENING in certain segments, everything is just so subtly yet fundamentally off that it ends up crafting an engaging world of story. Whether it be oddly conceived and delivered dialogue; a scene where Prairie’s Russian father forces her to dive into freezing cold water to teach her a lesson about fear; a scene where an FBI counselor played by Riz Ahmed gives a lecture on the sociological importance of the hug; Prairie bringing up the fact that she thinks she might be an angel, everyone accepting that at face value, and then it never really being addressed or challenged again (OA stands for “original angel”); acapella versions of Pearl Jam songs; or the fact that this is a show about interdimensional interpretive dance (I’m not going to be able to move past that point), this is a show with a certain…“intangible other,” as its characters are fond of saying.
Looks like those D.A.R.E. presentations were right
Of course, I’m not going to entirely let it off scot-free just because Batmanglij took shrooms once and had a really crazy dream. There is a whole honkin’ amount of bullshit present here that the idiosyncratic premise fails to excuse. Batmanglij simply has too many characters on his hands to make all of them interesting. This is most apparent in the cast of test subjects. While Homer gets a satisfactory amount of attention since he has Prairie’s favor, all we really know about Scott (Will Brill) is that he’s a whiny former drug addict, all we really know about Rachel is that she’s played by indie folkster Sharon Van Etten, and all we really know about Renata (Paz Vega) is that Hop wants to shtup her. Since it’s never justified why the interdimensional interpretive dance needs five people in order to work, the show could have just as easily been about Prairie and Homer attempting to escape. And while Prairie’s group back in Michigan all have their own subplots, poor Jesse falls by the wayside, having a singular scant scene of character development wherein he smokes weed with his lesbian sister.
On the topic of THE OA’s subplots…they’re all pretty alright! Steve’s is most carefully tended to, involving him trying to stay one step ahead of his predilection for dangerous delinquency. The show does a commendable job of portraying him as a troubled kid who, deep down, doesn’t like who he’s become, but can’t control himself enough to stop the runaway train of his impending future. His eventual friendship with Betty, despite her being the one that originally recommended him for expulsion, is one of the highlights of the show, and Betty’s attempt to get him back from the rehabilitation officers that whisk him away is one of the finale’s strongest narratives. Meanwhile, French is a star student and athlete despite having to take care of his siblings, deadbeat mother, and heroin addiction (admittedly, this isn’t satisfactorily addressed). While the hints towards the end that Prairie might be projecting a made-up Homer onto him aren’t entirely earned, he’s the most empathetic side character due to his circumstances. However, Batmanglij deserves the most credit for his treatment of a Buck, a transgender male character. Buck never gets exploited by the writing in any way, the characters all taking his identity in stride and only a few scenes occurring where his dad refers to him by his birth name. In short, Buck manages to be a character apart from his gender, which is a rarer feat in entertainment than many would care to admit.
Is it cool if I vape in here?
Despite being generally satisfactory, the show would have been improved had it focused more on the relationship between Prairie and Hap. Already the part most clearly worth sticking around for, the murky distinctions between whether they’re best suited as friends, lovers, or enemies could have been expanded into something truly memorable. While Hap is generally slimey, he does seem to have a genuine care and respect for Prairie, and her stumbling attempts to navigate her own feelings about the situation are the moments with the most gripping internal conflict. In addition, her natural desire to not cause any living creature harm are thrown into disarray when faced with the prospect of escaping, which further her own grasp on a moral compass. Prairie’s relationship with Abel and Nancy is similarly layered, with it being made clear that while she does love them, she also has a deep mistrust and resent for them for their decision to medicate her as a child due to her continued visions. Her regularly unsuccessful attempts to convince them of the truth of her disappearance culminate in a scene of violence that will tug at the heartstrings.
Truth be told, I went into this review with the intention of not recommending it, but after all of this, I realize that there’s more here than may initially meet the eye. You’ll have to have a taste for the willfully bizarre. You’ll have to check a suspension of disbelief way before you even get to the door. You’ll have to have the stomach for a show about interdimensional interpretive dance. But heck, more and more, I’m realizing that the mark of a good piece of entertainment doesn’t necessarily have to equate to being a good piece of entertainment. This is a show that has no business existing, but does so with such confidence that it might just be worth a shot.