I’ll admit: I’m two years late to the game with this one. The OA, which dropped seemingly out of nowhere on Netflix in late 2016, was a show that was always on my radar but never quite made it onto my screen. Why, I’m not sure. The premise, to be fair, is quite something. Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, The OA surrounds a mysterious woman named Prairie (Marling) who reappears after a seven year disappearance. When she disappeared, she was blind. When she returns, she can see (and with a new name, mysteriously asking to be referred to as “the OA”). The pilot episode dolls out its surprises slowly and with a rare grace. With a hook straight out of an airplane read, you wouldn’t be faulted for expecting a tight-paced crime thriller. Except that you would, because from its opening frames, it’s clear that The OA is akin to a different, special kind of television. In fact, it’s the only show so far that has dared capture the same kind of magic and mysticism that HBO’s The Leftovers did.
Its first episode begins with iPhone footage of a young woman weaving between stalled traffic on a bridge. She appears out of it, and wholly unconcerned about the cars around her. The person filming is assuring her young son in the backseat that everything is fine. See, look, honey, she’s made it to the walkway. Crisis averted. Except that the woman steps over the railing, looks back at the camera, and lets herself slip away. It’s an incredibly eerie start, and the perfect hook. How anyone could stop watching is beyond me. From there, we start to gather some proper information: the mysterious woman is named Prairie, she has been missing for seven years, and she survived the fall. She has also regained her sight, leading to her being dubbed “The Michigan Miracle” in the press. When Prairie wakes up in the hospital, she asks the nurse if she flatlined. This is important to her. The nurse says no, and Prairie is devastated. The mystery deepens.
Over the course of The OA’s first season, you will be asked to suspend all previous notions of how television should work. The episodes vary in length, sometimes lasting thirty minutes, sometimes over an hour. Obscure titles cards open each episode, and brief, ominous symbols close them out. And in one bravura, frankly baller, move, the only true title sequence of the series arrives at the end of the first episode. It was a moment that caused chills down my spine and a grin on my face. Not since the above mentioned The Leftovers had I been this excited and surprised by television. It was magical.
“Magic” is the word I keep coming back to when thinking over The OA and it’s clear why. Marling and Batmanglij have created a work so free of irony and cynicism that it can feel out-of-this-world — and at times, uncomfortable. One major plot device involves a series of movements, most akin to interpretive dance, that has proved divisive amongst viewers and critics alike. It’s unsurprising: The emotion and commitment and absolute sincerity behind it is almost hard to watch. But that is what makes The OA work. It, like Prairie/The OA, does not care if you do not believe in it yet. Because you will, eventually. Its confidence is contagious.
As Prairie/The OA returns home for the first time in years, you get a glimpse of the physical space where the show takes place (metaphysical spaces also come into play, but give it some time). It’s a quiet, unfinished development complex in Michigan. All the houses look the same, all spaced out evenly and surrounded by empty, cleared land. There’s mention of a financial crisis that left the developers unable to finish the project. Empty, half-built houses litter the landscape like skeletons. I grew up in Michigan, and lived near one of these places — it has since become my own idea of suburban hell — but you do not need to have lived there to recognize it. It’s such a realistic setting that it borders on surreal; so rarely do these kind of spaces get featured on our screens.
It is at one of those skeleton houses that much of The OA’s action takes place, and it’s the perfect setting. I fear getting into too many plot specifics, even those that take place in the first episode, as the slow realization of what’s to come is part of what makes the show so special. But I will digress a small bit: Prairie/The OA has a mission, and for it she needs five “strong, flexible” people to help her. The group she gathers is wonderfully diverse, in both character and representation. Fleshing out these supporting players is one of the true joys of The OA, and never feels like an after thought. Marling and Batmanglij understand the need for this humanity. Without it, the show would run risk getting lost amongst all its (wonderful) fantastical elements.
Ultimately, The OA’s first season is a leap of faith. There are so many moments that the average viewer might shy away from, too weird or too out there for comfort. To do so would be a tragic mistake. There will be moments for all of us where The OA challenges our beliefs, but hold on. And hold on tight. This is not a show you ever want to lose.