It is a good bet that when Netflix announced its mysterious new series The OA with an unsettling suicide-tinged teaser, asking audiences “Have you seen death?”, the goal was to ruffle some feathers as a way to get eyeballs on a series set to premiere on the streaming service just days later. In the time between the teaser announcement and the December 16 release of the seemingly sci-fi-adjacent program, the marketing department for The OA began working overtime to get conspiracy theory-minded viewers picking apart its ambiguous teases and even more perplexing insinuations shared across social media. It was an ingenious ploy that avoided the trappings of having to explain the series’ apparently complex (perhaps convoluted) conceit as a way of selling it, and instead focused its efforts on micro-targeting the ideal demographic – i.e., Redditors with a lot of free time on their hands now that Westworld season 1 has come to an end.
It will be interesting to see how the series performs given it is part of the Netflix all-at-once format, which is inherently prohibitive in terms of building suspense and intrigue around a storyline that’s presumably as mysterious as the one The OA is presenting. Whereas Westworld doubled-down on its weekly format by teasing the audience week after week with half-truths, seemingly unanswerable questions, and finally, long-anticipated reveals, The OA can and likely will be consumed almost immediately, practically eliminating any chance of it becoming a viral sensation that builds its audience gradually, enticing them with puzzles and questions to be theorized upon and sorted out in the days between episodes. In effect, along with the question of just what the show is about, what’s going on with its lead character’s supposed seven-year disappearance, and the creepy insinuation of suicide and (possibly) abduction and experimentation, one of the biggest inquiries to be addressed will be: How will the audience respond?
Chances are, Netflix sees another Stranger Things-like hit on its hands – hence the disturbing advertisements and the fact that it was dumped in the laps of the audience at the end of the year. The service is likely betting that it will feel more like a Secret Santa gift than a chance to unload a property of unknown value. Given the nature of the marketing so far, Netflix knows exactly what it has and it knows how to make The OA an appealing product to a select audience. Whether or not it breaks through to the mainstream like the Duffer Brothers’ nostalgia-fueled Stranger Things did remains to be seen, but so far the series gets points for capitalizing on the fact very few knew it even existed and turning that to its advantage.
What is The OA?
Hailing from the team of Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, The OA uses many of the same concepts as their breakout indie hit Sound of My Voice and the less well received The East. In fact, it’s the former that The OA more closely resembles, as that film toyed with the audience’s expectations through the story of a small cult and its figurehead (played by Marling) who claimed to be from a dystopian future. The film excelled at the sort of meticulousness of plotting that Westworld displayed, but on a much smaller scale. Both Batmanglij and Marling seem to work better when telling a story with grand ambitions through a relatively limited format. The DIY nature of The Sound of My Voice greatly enhanced its unsettling atmosphere and it also legitimized the twisty denouement in a way that a larger-budgeted, less constrained production might have forced into gimmickry.
Here, The OA makes a play for the unconventional, beginning the series with a disturbing smartphone video of Marling’s Prairie Johnson darting through traffic on a bridge and making brief eye contact with whoever is holding the remarkably steady camera before jumping to her presumed death. Considering the sequence’s use in the show’s guerilla marketing campaign, the weight of the moment is somewhat diluted, but it remains demonstrative of Marling and Batmanglij’s ability to hook the audience and get them immediately invested in the mystery of what’s going on.
From the opening sequence on, The OA uses many of the same beats as Sound of My Voice, introducing characters through their indirect involvement in an unbelievable story, the veracity of which is known by only one person. In this case, the person in question is Prairie – or The OA, as she wants to be called – a young blind woman who disappeared seven years ago, and turned up out of the blue with her vision restored and some disturbing scars on her back. There are as many questions regarding Prairie’s return as there are about her disappearance, but The OA diverts the need for answers by focusing on what its protagonist wants in the immediate present. Giving Prairie a distinct objective – even though its purpose also remains obscured – serves the series well in two ways. For one, it gives the narrative a distinct purpose beyond simply being mysterious and teasing answers that may or may not be coming (much less be fulfilling). Secondly, it expands the scope of the narrative from that of Prairie and her disappearance to a group of misfit teens who somehow fall into her zone of influence.
Again, echoes of Sound of My Voice register as high school bully Steve (Patrick Gibson), outcast Jesse (Brendan Meyer), overachiever French (Brandon Perea), transgender teen Buck Vu (Ian Alexander), and a teacher played by Phyllis Smith become Prairie’s unlikely cohort. The group gathers around the enigmatic young woman just as the followers of Marling’s character in Sound of My Voice did. This time, though, the teens aren’t drawn by the promise of knowing the future, but rather discovering Prairie’s past and, as the series surprisingly lays out in the super-sized premiere episode, the answer to what happens after you die.
Is it Any Good?
Throughout the first few episodes, it remains uncertain whether the appeal of The OA lies in the mystery of its plot or in its unconventional storytelling. The first episode is split between getting to know Prairie and the misfits seeking answers in her company, before an out-of-left-field backstory kicks off with a sweeping, slightly incongruent score and a trip to Russia in the ’90s. Before there is time to adjust to the (supposed) revelation that Prairie is really Nina, the daughter of a wealthy, presumably dead, mining magnate, The OA drops you into an extra-dimensional head-trip suggesting consciousness transcends life. Throw in Jason Isaacs as a demented researcher captivated by the study of NDEs (Near Death Experience) and The OA offers the early stages of an entirely new series of intrigues that tie into Prairie’s initial want after coming home: To find another NDE survivor named Homer.
Popular television right now seems fueled by two things: nostalgia and mystery. The OA is most definitely checking box number two, but throughout the first few episodes, it doesn’t seem as though the series is obfuscating details for the purpose of maintaining a mystery, but rather because it simply hasn’t gotten to them yet. The series’ interest in sensory experience – played up by Prairie regaining her vision, the process of watching and processing information from a screen, and the strange device created by Isaac’s character that can isolate a single human’s heartbeat – and how that relates to the phenomena of consciousness will hopefully add to the narrative and begin to outweigh the need for answers. But early on it seems Marling and Batmanglij are content to let the mystery act as the narrative’s foundation.
The OA offers an intriguing premise, the allure of a puzzle box narrative, and a non-linear format to keep fans of such things going through the inevitable binge-watch. So far, it works by not completely denying the audience the information they want in order to make sense of things. Instead, it asks them to question the legitimacy of what they are being told through Prairie’s account. It’s hard to say whether television needs another potentially unreliable narrator, but hopefully The OA can make good on the promises of its structure and puzzling narrative, and perhaps even offer the audience something more than just answers.
The OA season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.