Lamenting The OA: Netflix’s biggest missed opportunity of 2016

Spoilers ahead for the first season of Netflix’s The OA, so if you aren’t caught up, feel free to take care of that now. I’m fine waiting – I can use the time to master The Five Movements.

In the spirit of shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld, Netflix’s The OA has quickly (if quietly) emerged as something of a “puzzle-box” series, wherein the show’s central mysteries stand in equal value to more traditional storytelling components like character and plot development. It’s a storytelling model for a more, dare I say, intellectual age – one which can be attributed as much to the passionate online communities that revel in shared speculation of a given puzzle-box show as it can be to the idea that this phenomenon is simply the next logical step in the evolution of storytelling in general.

The OA co-creators Brit Marling (who also stars as the titular character) and Zal Batmanglij (who directs all eight episodes) strive to make the world and characters of their show feel authentic and, most importantly, sincere. Though they largely succeed on this front, this is where they should have capped their approach to the narrative; The OA is by far at its best when it attempts to explore the lives and motivations of its very human characters – whether it be the hot-tempered high-schooler Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson), or his emotionally aloof teacher, Ms. Betty Broderick Allen (Phyllis Smith, who is transcendent here), or the many fine secondary characters in between.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

Where The OA fails is in its inability to strike a manageable balance between its fine character work and the larger (and largely unsatisfying/confusing) Prairie/OA-centric mysteries that ostensibly serve as the plot engine for the series. The OA never fully commits to what it wants to be; maybe it’s a supernatural sci-fi thriller that questions our understanding of reality, or maybe it’s a character-based drama that explores how we navigate the avenues of human trauma and grief, but either way, there is never a point in the series where The OA successfully fuses these two modes of storytelling together in a satisfying manner.

More on all this below, and assuming you’re all caught up with the show, I won’t spend much time recapping – I’d far rather just jump in and roll around in the rather beautiful mess that is The OA. Let’s get to it.

THE GOOD STUFF

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

The premiere episode, “Homecoming,” does a fine job of introducing Prairie Johnson, AKA the OA, as our protagonist, as well as some of the central mysteries surrounding her, including her lengthy disappearance, the nature of the scarification of her back, and her returned eyesight. Marling imbues the character with what I can only describe as a humble vulnerability cloaked in a fierce commitment to purpose, which follows her throughout the season; never do we doubt her belief in her in intentions, even if the truths behind those intentions come at a frustratingly slow pace – for her, and for us. Though she was subjected to horrific experiments for years on end, I appreciated that her character wasn’t built on a sense of victimhood, but rather upon her belief that she still has work to do to right the wrongs that were done to her and the other near-death experience (NDE) people she was imprisoned with.

In “Homecoming,” we also get a strong sense of the world that Prairie left behind when she ran away all those years ago. Her loving adoptive parents, Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige), steal the show in nearly every scene they’re in. The disappearance of Prairie affected each parent in its own way; Abel remained pragmatic and cautiously optimistic over the years, while Nancy regressed into a state of fearful neuroses that comes to complicate her relationship with her family as the season moves along. Wilson and Krige play off each other in such believably decisive ways that we can’t help but feel the years-long loss of their daughter as deeply as we come to feel Prairie’s own losses, and the pair come to be one of the strongest elements on the season on the whole.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

Also wonderful are the other supporting characters who come into Prairie’s life after her return to her hometown of Crestwood. In addition to Steve and Broderick-Allen, we meet French (Brandon Perea), a committed student and athlete who is the sole breadwinner for his struggling family; Buck (Ian Alexander), a transgender teen boy trying to navigate the difficulties of transitioning; and Jesse (Brendan Meyer), Steve’s friend, the one person in this group of characters who doesn’t get much development compared to the others and is framed primarily through his friendship with Steve. But what we do know is that each of them are facing their own internal emotional struggles – struggles that each of them are finally able to face once the OA brings them all together.

I really enjoyed the dynamic of the group once they came together, paradoxical in their incongruous symmetry. They are humanity’s imperfect pieces who have finally found a way to sew their torn edges to the frays and tears of another, and honestly, if these particular relationship dynamics were the limit of the show, I think I would’ve walked away from it far more satisfied. Don’t get me wrong – there were some amazing moments shared between OA and her fellow NDE captives (more on this shortly), but those scenes were fully entrenched in the tediously ambiguous mythology of the show; they always felt like they were in the service of the plot, whereas the scenes in the attic felt far more organic, human, and lived-in.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

I also need to give credit to the neighborhood in which all of the present-day story takes place. Nancy calls it “New Crestwood,” but we can see as clearly as she does that the subdivision died before it even had a chance to live. “They ran out of money before they could finish it,” she continues, a point that’s driven home by several shots throughout the series in which we see meandering residential streets weaving their way through empty blocks where houses should’ve been. On the periphery of these lots are tree-dappled hills, with the odd finished house accentuating the landscape here and there, butting up against useless retaining walls capped with malnourished pines. It’s depressing as hell – a visual representation of the failed experiment of the American Dream, each empty house and lot another piece of withered fruit on the vine of self-determination.

Yes, it’s depressing, but the antiquated neighborhood also serves as a rather magnificent visual representation of what each of our characters are going through. Everything is drab, dark, and empty in New Crestwood – the houses, and its people. There is a certain power the characters gain when they use one of these abandoned houses as their place of fellowship and respite; they are, in a way, reclaiming the neighborhood from the grips of slow death, while also reclaiming the parts of themselves that make them feel alive. For Broderick-Allen, it is coming to terms with her brother’s death; for Steve, it is embracing his inner goodness; for Buck, it is standing up to his father; for French, it is realizing that there is more to his life than what a scholarship might do for him; and for Jesse, well, I guess it means he gets to see his buddy Steve thrive and not much else. Again, if this was the extent of the series – six people learning to live life through sharing a profound experience together – I would’ve been pretty stoked for the show.

THE BAD STUFF

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

So yes, I enjoyed much of the character work and all of the setting of The OA in its present day, but that is where I must limit my accolades for the show. For all its thoughtful meditation on the nature of suburban folks living a life less ordinary, The OA leaves these compelling narrative threads all too often in an effort to explore the show’s central mystery (hackneyed and rather silly, as it turns out), and to do that, we have to trudge through the ultimately unsatisfying events that transpired over the last seven years – and all of this through the subjective lens of OA’s subjective recollection.

All of OA’s memories of this time period coalesce around the events that transpired in Dr. Hunter “Hap” Percy’s (Jason Isaacs) underground prison lair, where he imprisons folks who have had an NDE in order to observe them and learn the true nature of what happens to us after death. Along with OA, there is Scott (Will Brill); Rachel (Sharon van Etten); Homer (Emory Cohen); and later, Renata (Paz Vega). Held for years in cells with clear walls, the group forms a bond over their NDE histories, and come to discover the nature and use of the “movements,” which, if done correctly, will open a portal to another plane of existence. For his part, Hap kills the NDE’ers over and over and over again with a terrifying drowning machine, hoping to crack their mystery open, and gasses them to make them forget. The show wants us to see him as a conflicted man pursuing the darkest edges of science, and Isaacs acts at high execution, but Hap never gets beyond being a rather garden-variety dick who abuses the vulnerable over the course of years and years for his own selfish ends.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

Again, all the acting in these flashback sequences are fine, with Isaacs and Cohen giving particularly powerful performances. And again, the good acting is all for naught, because the things that are actually happening in each flashback scene range from the silly to the utterly preposterous. For instance, I really wanted to feel the tension in the scene where OA tries to, and nearly succeeds in, drugging Hap’s soup. Well, it turns out that it wasn’t the drugs that affected him, but rather the tomato in the soup. See, Hap is deathly allergic to tomato, so thank god he didn’t have anything in his own kitchen that contained tomatoes – oh, wait. Yeah. He did. See, this is poor storytelling. I can’t invest in characters or their struggles if I’m too busy feeling bamboozled by a shoddily-crafted plot element – even a seemingly small oversight such as this.

But when I stack up the many small (and some rather large) oversights in the story – particularly those that surround the central “Is OA an angel or is she just heavily traumatized from her captive ordeal” mystery – The OA quickly begins to flounder under the weight of its own misguided ambition. Remember how willfully resistant OA was to telling her parents the truth of her captivity for several episodes, only to unload the information on them while eating in a crowded room at the Olive Garden where everyone can hear? Not only is this silly because of the abrupt change in OA’s fundamental, established behavior, but it’s silly because it undermines and invalidates the importance of her secret mission of saving Homer and the others. These sorts of things happened far too often as the show moved toward its finale, and I spent far too much of it being ripped out immersion due to poor storytelling decisions.

So yeah, the OA is an angel, the original one, whatever that means. Which is a detail I almost missed because I was so distracted by the confusion playing out during the big reveal. The Olive Garden? Really?

AND THE UGLY STUFF

When it comes to The OA‘s poor storytelling decisions, there is one that I might put at the top of the list: the movements themselves. Listen, they were kinda cool in theory, but as their importance continued to increase on-screen, so too did their sheer goofiness. I get what Marling and Batmanglij were going for: a visually evocative expression of an abstract idea – in this case, an interpretive group-dance that somehow opens a link from our world to another.

Okay, I get it. On paper it must have looked great. Hell, even the first few times OA and Homer tried the moves looked great. But once they started having dance-move arguments with each other, I had to tap out. It just didn’t translate on-screen for me like it was intended to, which I’m assuming was to increase my emotional investment in these characters.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

Never was my derision for these movements so focused as it was for the culminating scene of the season, in which our present-day group of five muster their courage and use the movements to bedazzle and distract an active school shooter in the school’s cafeteria. And yes, it feels as absurd to write that sentence as it was to behold the woeful scene itself.

This scene is the moment the entire series has been building to – OA’s season-long premonition dreams tell us as much – and for it be a school shooting feels like a pretty cheap deal. If nothing else, Marling and Batmanglij could have at least attempted to make some kind of social commentary on the pervasive problem of mass shootings in America, but there is none of that. Instead, Marling and Batmanglij seemed to have randomly drawn “school shooting” from a hat filled with random tragic events and decided such a potentially triggering topic was as good as any. This, coupled with the plain silliness of the movements, wrecked this important scene for me, which in turn soured me on the series.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

THE VERDICT

So here’s where I sit with The OA: it’s a show that annoyed me far more than it wooed me, but dammit, for the moments it did woo me, it knocked it out of the park. There were so many beautiful little character moments tucked in throughout that I couldn’t help but be drawn in, but the balance was all wrong. I mean, here I sit, a week after finishing the series, and I’m still far more interested in learning more about Buck’s troubled relationship with his family than I am with learning if the group opened the portal for OA, or even if OA is okay after being shot.

In other words, my favorite aspects of the show seem to be the aspects that the show itself is least concerned with. The OA wants its mysteries in the forefront, and that’s okay as far as it goes, even if it means I personally won’t be racing back, if and when there’s more.

Like us on Facebook

Seth Cardin

Seth's academic background is in cultural, literary, and film studies, and he loves applying it to popular culture to see what kind of crazy claims he can come up with.