It’s both a blessing and a curse for Netflix’s top-secret new show The OA that viewers might mistakenly stumble in expecting a new pop sci-fi obsession à la Stranger Things. Viral marketing for The OA has done all it can to encourage the association: there’s Brit Marling submerged underwater in a glass helmet just like Eleven, the telekinetic heroine of the Netflix ’80s throwback. A trailer shows her in a research facility, the subject of some experiment. She even gets nosebleeds.
But The OA—as anyone familiar with co-creators Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s past work together will know to expect—is not so easily GIFed. It’s a lofty, sometimes-moving, sometimes-profound rumination on a host of deep questions: on trauma, spirituality, human connection, and the possibility of life after death, among other things. It unfurls slowly (so, so slowly, especially in its early episodes) into a cerebral sci-fi mystery not quite as compelling as it’s convinced it is.
In that maddening regard at least, the show has more in common with HBO’s Westworld than Stranger Things. It’s at its best when grounded in ordinary, human stories about loss, alternative families, and the pain of growing up—though these threads are often sidelined in favor of the fantastical promise of that central mystery. That’s a shame; authentic human relationships, it turns out, make for better TV than abstract meditations on the metaphysical or supernatural. (We watched Stranger Things for the kids, not the Demogorgon.)
Marling stars as Prairie Johnson, a blind woman welcomed back into her Missouri hometown seven years after her unexplained disappearance. Her sight is miraculously restored, but no one can get her to say where she’s been or how she can see again. No one that is, except for a high-school teacher (played by a sublimely mopey Phyllis Smith) and four teenage boys: lonely bully Steve (Patrick Gibson), star athlete French (Brandon Perea), insecure trans kid Buck (Ian Alexander), and sweet loser Jesse (Brendan Meyer).
In secretive nighttime gatherings, Prairie unspools an autobiography so wildly unbelievable that naturally the teenagers eat up every word. Maybe you prefer to go into this story blind, like Prairie (and I) did; if so, be warned of vague, impossible-sounding spoilers ahead.
In flashbacks that Prairie narrates, there are fairy tale-like detours into a haunted childhood in Russia. There’s the specter of an adolescence spent in medication-induced depression. There are nosebleed-inducing dreams she’s convinced are dark premonitions. There’s a love story, a few kidnappings, immoral science, interdimensional travel, magical healing, an Indian goddess, and a spellbinding dance I can only describe as the choreographic equivalent of two furiously hissing cats.
In giving traumatized Prairie the power to tell her own story, the show becomes about the nature of storytelling itself: how it cleanses and transports, how it brings disparate people together, how easy it is to feel betrayed by a dissatisfying conclusion. (Opinions will be split on the ambiguous ending to The OA, but count me among those ready to stab something with a pencil.) And faith—faith is an important part of the story too. The teenagers become disciples through their faith in Prairie’s story, and Prairie a leader through her unwavering faith in herself.
Phew. If that all sounds like an exhausting amount of Big Ideas for one eight-hour season, it is. There are also two timelines to juggle, two sets of supporting characters, two adoptive parents, (and one dead biological one), and a deeply complex villain played by Lucius Malfoy himself, Jason Isaacs. It’s a lot of moving parts; many don’t get the follow-through they deserve. Certain actors are allowed to shine: Emory Cohen is now forever redeemed for Smash, and Patrick Gibson’s angry, vulnerable, yearning performance makes him a rising star to watch. Others, meanwhile, are given too little to work with. Brandon Perea and Ian Alexander, for instance, bring a quiet energy onscreen that seemed poised to become something more. (And for god’s sake, more Phyllis Smith, please.)
Riz Ahmed makes a surprise appearance as the world’s wisest, most comforting trauma counselor, and Scott Wilson (Hershel from The Walking Dead) gets to simmer in resentment as Prairie’s adoptive dad. Ultimately though, from beginning to end, the show chooses to stay centered on Prairie. Staying rooted in her perspective offers very few answers, and even less context, to the questions the show asks. And it allows only the briefest scenes for other characters to become anything resembling real people—let alone the all-important “family” members Prairie keeps professing them to be.
Still, Marling, who wrote several episodes, and Batmanglij, who directed all eight, have made something beautiful and weird and wholly unique here. The show is innovative in how flexible it is with format, taking full advantage of its streaming platform. Episodes range from 30 to 70 minutes, whatever length each needs to be. In the first, the title credits don’t appear until almost an hour in, making it a prologue more than a proper episode.
It’s gorgeously shot and powerfully acted, especially by Marling, who can be startling and mesmerizing and sweet, all while telegraphing otherworldly intelligence. She’s made a name for herself with similarly cerebral takes on indie sci-fi, with her breakout role in Another Earth (which she also wrote and starred in) and her collaborations with Batmanglij. The pair previously made Sound of My Voice (in which Marling plays a cult leader who claims to be from the future) and The East, based on the pair’s real-life experiences living like Freegans.
That last project was kept shrouded in mystery until its release much like The OA, which was announced in 2015 and largely forgotten about until Netflix’s “surprise” announcement Monday. (That brought on some stellar corporate account tweets: “Have you seen death?”) As with those other projects, The OA ends on an ambivalent note—it’s a messy, jaw-dropping WTF ending that is more than a little ludicrous. But to be honest, I also can’t say I wasn’t moved.
The result is a show that pays a fitting, if overwrought tribute to love and to human will. Parts of it are frightening—try making it through Episode 3 without heart palpitations—and some parts really do reach the thought-provoking profundity the show aims for. It doesn’t have the mass appeal of Stranger Things, but who says it has to? It wants to be difficult. Such staggering ideas as life after death are supposed to be. If you’re still undecided, take a leap anyway. Like the tagline says: Trust the unknown.