In terms of its television — and maybe only in terms of its television — 2016 just kept on giving and giving. Even though it’s nearly over, this year of exceptional TV has managed to deliver one more unexpected gift.
The OA — a mystery-spiritual thriller that starts streaming today on Netflix and focuses on a blind woman (Brit Marling) who disappears and resurfaces with her sight granted — is that gift, and it is extraordinary. Even though the project was announced back in 2015, its release date and the specifics of its premise were made public only a few days ago. That means that many viewers will stumble upon this eight-part series — co-created by Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the films The Sound of My Voice and The East — the same way that The OA’s protagonist initially encounters so many of the details in her environment: with no capacity to see what’s coming.
The show’s surprise arrival also mirrors the show’s narrative approach, which is dazzling in its insistence on avoiding straight lines and favoring hairpin turns. Every single episode, as directed with great assurance by Batmanglij, who also co-wrote most of them with Marling, veers in directions that only those who read advance spoilers or happen to be clairvoyant will be able to anticipate in advance. The whole experience is so absorbing that I now regret having made my top TV shows of 2016 list so early in December. The OA belongs, if not in my top ten, then certainly highly ranked among the honorable mentions.
The first installment begins with a narrow window of imagery, clearly shot using a cell phone, in which a woman dashes through traffic until she reaches the edge of a bridge. “Don’t! Don’t!” we hear another woman, presumably the one filming, shout. The bridge runner — who we soon find out is a woman named Prairie (Marling) — turns and looks over her shoulder for a moment. Then she leaps. “She let go,” we hear a child’s voice say. I mean, seriously: Is it physically possible to stop watching a series that begins on a note like that?
Prairie soon wakes up in a hospital, and is clearly agitated and scared. The Johnsons, an older couple played by Alice Krige (Maddie from HBO’s Deadwood) and Scott Wilson (best known to TV audiences as Hershel from The Walking Dead) are notified that she’s there and rush to her bedside. At first, Prairie does not recognize them. Only when she runs her fingers over the contours of Krige’s face — “Mom?” Prairie asks — does it become clear that these are her parents. “She’s our daughter, Prairie,” explains a choked-up Abel (Wilson) to a confused nurse. “But she’s never seen us before. Seven years ago, when she went missing, she was blind.”
How did Prairie gain sight? Why did she disappear and what happened to her during those seven years? Why, as she tells a nurse before her parents arrive at the hospital, does she insist on being called The OA, and what does OA mean?
These are questions the show immediately raises and eventually, at a measured and deliberate pace, answers, all while unearthing new ones that touch on matters ranging from mental illness to the nature of the afterlife to scientific ethics. (If it sounds like I’m being vague about the plot, I am. In case this wasn’t already clear, this is one of those shows that’s much more satisfying the less you know going into it.)
Marling and Batmanglij actively play with the more linear form in which TV usually unfolds, immersing in flashbacks to Prairie’s childhood and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, then switching back to her present readjustment to life in suburban Michigan, where she begins to connect with select neighbors who, like her, are held captive in literal and metaphorical ways. The show is so intent on upending convention and keeping its audience off-balance that it varies the running time of its episodes — they range from 30 to 70 minutes — and even purposefully withholds the opening titles until the third act of the first one. The experience of watching this is akin to playing hide-and-go-seek while opening a never-ending Russian nesting doll.
Admittedly, The OA contains some moments that may come across as goofy rather than in the meaningful, mystical way in which they’re intended. I also have no doubt that some people will go back and highlight gaps in its logic once they rocket through the whole thing for the first time. (Again: I’d say more, but it’s better if you see for yourself.) But even when it missteps, The OA never feels like it’s leading its audience down a path that will screech to a halt with no payoff.
Marling has always been an actress who radiates intelligence, and that grants Prairie — who acts, in most cases, as our window into The OA world — a credibility that we can invest in even when she says things that sound unbelievable. She’s also surrounded by other actors — Krige, Wilson, Emory Cohen (Brooklyn), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), Phyllis Smith as a teacher who might actually be sadder than Sadness, the blue depressive she voiced in Inside Out — who smartly tilt away from black and white so they can lean harder into shades of gray. (The seemingly everywhere Riz Ahmed has a supporting role here, too, as a counselor who might be the polar opposite of the accused murderer he played in The Night Of.)
In their previous indie film work, Batmanglij and Marling exhibited a fascination with group dynamics and the human susceptibility to mind control, and that’s on display here, too, as is a heightened skill for generating suspense. Batmanglij can make it seem necessary to reach for a defibrillator simply in the way he captures a face ballooning underwater or a sharp knife cutting into a loaf of bread. The third episode, in particular, contains some moments that come close to matching the level of nail-biting induced by a show like Breaking Bad.
That AMC series isn’t the only one that pops to mind over the course of The OA, which comes to a climactic head in the final minutes of episode eight. There are strong reminders of the movie Room and the original The Returned coursing through this, as well as hints of the Audrey Hepburn film Wait Until Dark. And while The OA is nothing like Westworld — for starters, it’s much less chilly and more emotionally engaging — it may remind a few Netflixers of that HBO robot puzzler because both are stories about the way stories are told and the ones we choose to believe. But those themes assert themselves in much more subtle ways in The OA, whose narrative change-ups also land much more naturally.
In a year in which plot twists were sometimes telegraphed so blatantly that their impact was neutered, it may have seemed like we had all become too savvy for television to genuinely surprise us anymore. But The OA lowers the curtain on the year with an ambitious, thoroughly bingeable reminder that it is still possible. And this, right here, is how it’s done.