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'The OA' Rewards with Brave New Territory
January 4, 2017  | By Eric Gould
 

[Editors Note: Only minor details of The OA are discussed below. No main plot references are divulged.]

What to say about The OA, since any discussion of it would result in major spoilers in the streaming universe, which like the metaphysical space the series inhabits, is unmoored in time and rules?

Above all, it should be noted that the series, co-created by and starring the pale and priestly Brit Marling, is a hybrid of the most provocative and, on occasion, preposterous sort: a kind of Breakfast Club meets Criminal Minds meets intergalactic yoga class.

If this seems cryptic, opaque and, well, too oddball to hold credibility and interest, it isn’t.

In fact, the best part of this mystery science-fantasy is its eccentric structure and its art of storytelling -- enigmatic as it starts and completely audacious by its third episode.

Marling and her collaborator, director Zal Batmanglij, have created a gratifying (and disturbing) world while breaking some new ground, in our ever-populated age of quality TV, in so many unconventional ways.

Regarding the spoiler threshold for The OA, it’s extremely low. Even the initials, that the lead character initially refers to herself as, really can’t be revealed without giving something away.

It can be said that the main character, Prairie Johnson (Marling), was blind since childhood, disappeared at the age of 18, seven years prior to the opening of the story and returns to her family in Episode One -- after being seen in a viral video jumping off a bridge.

Oh, and miraculously she can see again.

Readers can take a breath here since this part of Prairie’s plight is revealed in the first five minutes of The OA.

The rest of Marling’s tale is so unconventional (and at times so profoundly off-putting) viewers will have much, much more to chew on as the 8-part series unreels.

Netflix seems to have the binge-worthy formula well in hand here; like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and its current deluge of other new shows, you will likely gulp down the first season of the show in a couple of nights, as I did.

Marling, who has starred in similarly imaginative vehicles she co-authored with Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice, Another Earth), is not only a gifted screenwriter but also a heavyweight academic having graduated from Georgetown with a degree in economics.

Both of those films (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival) looked at faith and higher meaning against very flawed, sometimes extreme, characters. Accordingly, The OA is deeply steeped in its pseudo-science while its metaphysical themes dramatically dive into life, its physical origins, and its meaning and have an experienced tone and gravitas to them, something even more notable from a young writer in her thirties.

And Marling’s virtual albino radiance also contributes to The OA’s mise-en-scène of the higher levels of spirituality and perception.

Prairie's plight is also part science gone very wrong, and she is surrounded by an unwitting (and, at first, unwilling) group of misfit accomplices whom she begins to tell her story to. The oddness of this ensemble contributes well to the curious narrative of Prairie’s story, and her account of her disappearance.

Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) is here as her taciturn but accepting adoptive father Abel. Little-known Patrick Gibson (The Tudors) plays a violent, drug-dealing bully who finds some redemption in his newfound friendship with Prairie. He also eventually wins acceptance from his cynical, veteran teacher, Betty -- whose curve ball presence is a repeat reward here from Phyllis Smith of The Office.

Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, Awake, with Marling, top) and Riz Ahmed (The Night Of) are also along, so if this group can’t spark some interest, perhaps nothing will.

A legitimate difference here than, say, with a series like NBC’s 2011 The Event, is that The OA does not rely on its peculiar premise as its sole gimmick. The OA goes far and wide in its excavation of the love and fierce commitment between these characters, and that alone makes it worth the time.

But because of its elaborate construct, The OA has unavoidable plot contrivances that have their inevitable soft spots. There are some visual choices that assume Marling’s audience needs it spelled out in capital letters when they don’t. And The OA is not without a few head-scratching, even head-shaking, moments; particularly during its final five minutes.

The web and bloggers being what they are these days — critics who envision themselves as clever as the writers who actually create these worlds — have had their way with The OA and its outlandish conceit.

In this case, that’s equal to criticizing the builder of a skyscraper for putting out the wrong shade of dinnerware. Marling's commitment here to something new, something transcendent, with true heart, shouldn't be dismissed if a few steps were stumbled.

One thing we can probably agree on: Netflix has demonstrated that the audiences for these enigmatic shows might be smaller than ever, even smaller than found on the edgiest of basic cable channels.

But they are here. And so is the quality of the writing.

Let the rest of television take notice.

 
 
 
 
 
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