Reviews · TV

‘The OA’ Offers Even Stranger Things

Netflix was made for creators Britt Marling and Zal Batmanglij.
The Oa Netflix Britt Marling
By  · Published on December 23rd, 2016

There’s a scene in Short Circuit 2 that has always stuck with me. Johnny Five, the robot who is alive, is speed-reading through all the books in “the world’s largest book store,” and he chooses two classics (“Pinocchio” and “Frankenstein”) to purchase and spend more time with, slowly. Most of us can’t process major input the way Johnny Five can, but we do read and watch things in similarly two different ways. There are those things we can’t put down or can’t not binge through, and there are those things we want to savor for as long as we can. The OA is the latter for me.

Britt Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s new Netflix series debuted online last Friday, but it’s taken me a week to finish it. For once it wasn’t just because my family and work life doesn’t allow for much marathon viewing. I also was enjoying the characters and their stories, which aren’t driven too much by plot, and while I knew there’d be an endpoint with a conclusion probably involving a twist, I didn’t think the destination could possibly be as satisfying as what takes us there. I was right, and I’m glad I took my time. It’s not that the show doesn’t build to the finale, but that’s not its only goal.

The OA is about a woman (Marling) who has been missing for seven years, and at the start of the story she resurfaces with some remarkable differences from how she was at the time of her disappearance. As she attempts to settle back into a normal life with her adoptive parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson), she gathers a diverse group of new friends, including a high school delinquent (Patrick Gibson), an overachiever (Brandon Perea), a transgender boy (Ian Alexander) and a teacher (Phyllis Smith). They’re not exactly the Breakfast Club, but through her they all find an unlikely kinship.

The woman, whose birth name is Nina, adoption name is Prairie, and newly self-given name is The OA, tells her five recruits (Brendan Meyer rounds out the group) she needs them for some sort of mission and proceeds to share extensive background on her childhood and where she’s been during her absence. There are stories within stories, and they entail Russian origins, near-death experiences, a shady scientist (Jason Isaacs), and a love interest played by Emory Cohen, retaining some of that romantic Brooklyn charm.

Because of the narrative framework, there’s a literary quality to The OA, and that’s one reason it seems appropriate to treat it the same way we would a good book. Yes, plenty of novels have satisfying endings, but a good read can be loved whether it ends well or not, or even if you never actually finish it. With books you’re more likely to appreciate how the story is told in its form and style and through its details experienced along the way. The OA is like that, filling episodes with all sorts of ideas and visuals, including talk of angels and space travel plus props that look apt for a Terry Gilliam movie.

There’s definitely reason to compare this series to Stranger Things, if only because they’re both out of nowhere Netflix shows with a coming-of-age element mixed with a supernatural plot involving another dimension and doctors doing terrible experiments. And if that’s a way to get subscribers to give it a try, that’s good. But it’s not similar at all in tone, nor does it satisfy any kind of nostalgia. It’s a bit weirder, catering more to the Netflix audience that appreciates anything streaming that’s marked “mind-bending.”

If you like Marling and Batmanglij’s debut feature, The Sound of My Voice, there are some similarities, enough that you may initially get the impression that Marling’s character here is becoming a cult leader beginning with her little group of followers. And back when that film debuted at Sundance, the duo discussed how it was originally planned as a streaming web series. As a feature, it still has chapter breaks, and Batmanglij compared it to a novel, suggesting that you could watch over time, piece by piece, night by night.

The Sound of My Voice was also going to have sequels, so perhaps that evolved into The OA? Regardless, it’s a perfect match that Marling and Batmanglij wound up doing a streaming series for Netflix. The episodes are indeed good to set aside one per night – and just like chapters in a book, the episodes vary in length, some a half hour but most being around 60 minutes. They each stop off with minor cliffhangers, just enough to keep you interested but not always feeling an urgency to continue on immediately.

Still, if you feel the desire to plow through, that’s fine, too. Sometimes you just get to a point where you can’t put a story down, and there are certainly sequences in The OA where you’ll not want to wait to find out how something turns out. If that’s the case, it could be a show worth viewing more than once in order to give some of its scenes and subject matter more thought. Not that it’s the most enlightening stuff, though it is fascinating storytelling worthy of examination.

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Like Stranger Things and other series I love this year, The OA wraps things up pretty well by its finale and doesn’t seem to warrant, let alone need, a second season. Marling and Batmanglij have a nice way of considering what a follow-up would be in more analogical literary terms. If this season is a complete novel, then subsequent seasons are other books in the same series. It’s difficult to imagine what other stories they’d focus on in this series, but I look forward to more content on Netflix from this team whatever it may be.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.