Nothing specific, but some vague spoilers below.
The earliest and best example of how “The OA,” which is a bit like a lot of things but not a lot like any one thing, is going to set itself apart from the Peak TV herd, comes at 57 minutes in to the first episode. It’s only then, after what must surely count as the longest “cold open” in history, that the words “Netflix presents” come up on screen. The show abruptly switches location, from the affluent yet sterile environs of a not-quite-finished enclave of large homes in a treeless, featureless new-build American suburb, to a stunning snow-covered Moscow some years ago, where a little girl lives in an opulent mansion with her beloved father, like a princess in a fairytale.
It’s a switch from the show’s “real world” to a story being told, that might be a memory or might be a fantasy and the rest of the show will oscillate between those two states. It is an audacious beginning (maybe the only time an opening title has induced a shiver merely by its timing) and, like previous collaborations between writer/star Brit Marling and writer/director Zal Batmanglij, it displays their paradoxical ability to set up a delicate, uncanny tone, yet keep a hold of it with a sober, cast-iron grip — like someone clenching a butterfly tightly in their fist for eight hours without killing it. Except that here, at the very final hurdle, in the very last moments, the butterfly is abruptly crushed to death.
For the majority of its runtime, though, this is heady, intriguing storytelling that subtly challenges the conventions and expectations of even a self-contained “event” TV show. The structural arrhythmia set up by the opening is continued by having the episodes run to different lengths, and having each one attuned to a slightly different thematic frequency. Just when you think you have a handle on the show — ah, it’s about free will! Or wait, no, it’s about self-deception! Or hang on, is it about sensory perception and the prison of human physicality? — it shifts again. Just when you think it’s “Flatliners” meets “The Fountain,” it becomes “The Leftovers” meets “The Craft,” or Batmanglij/Marling’s own “Sound Of My Voice” meets the Wachowskis’ “Sense8.”
It tells the story of Prairie (Marling, hypnotic and ambivalent as ever), who is found having disappeared seven years prior. She now prefers to be called OA — a homophone for the word “Away” and if you’re looking for a barometer by which to judge whether this show is for you, your tolerance for that kind of mysterious, never-fully-explained detail is a pretty good indicator. When she disappeared, Prairie was blind, but now she can see, making her return miraculous on two counts. However, back in the loving embrace of her adoptive parents Nancy and Abel (lovely turns from Alice Krige and a gently heartbreaking Scott Wilson), Prairie who suffered from mental instability and was often medicated, is uncommunicative about her ordeal, except to five acolytes whom she mostly recruits from the ranks of the local kids. Finally securing permission from her parents to spend an hour a day unsupervised, Prairie uses that time to gather her little cult around her (definite shades of “Sound of My Voice”) and to tell them her story — a baroque tall tale of near-death experiences, scientific experiments, quests of love and murder and betrayal. They meet in the unlikely surrounds of a partially built house from which one of the kids, the troubled Steve (standout newcomer Patrick Gibson) deals drugs.
The show’s weirdness lies in the tale she weaves, a loopy, credulity-defying picaresque of Russian oligarchy, kidnapping and captivity, with new-agey spiritualist flourishes. But its resonance comes from its more ostensibly mundane aspect: the lives of the five listeners, these disparate moths drawn to Prairie’s flickering flame. Steve is violent, obnoxious and under threat of military school; his teacher Betty (co-MVP Phyllis Smith, aka Phyllis from “The Office“) is a disillusioned overeater carrying residual guilt over the death of her brother; Steve’s classmate Alfonso (Brandon Perea) is a high-achieving scholarship student who acts as caregiver and breadwinner to his brothers as well as to his ineffectual, apparently depressive mother; Jesse (Brendan Meyer) is an orphaned kid who lives with his not-much-older sister; and Buck (a soulful if underused Ian Alexander) is a transgender boy who eats lunch alone and whose father refuses to call him by anything but his given (female) name.
The show overreaches on the captivity storyline, in which Prairie and three other prisoners including her eventual paramour Homer (Emory Cohen) are kept for years in glass cages underground by a scientist (Jason Isaacs, great despite having the most impossibly melodramatic role) intent on unlocking the secrets of the afterlife. And in doing so, it undersells the stories of the four kids and their teacher, which are so perfectly played and well observed that they deserve more screentime. Jesse and Buck come out with shortest shrift, though the transgender Alexander’s beautifully watchful and kind performance makes Buck seem more central than he is written. In fact it’s he who points out how all the souls that Prairie has gathered around her are broken, enumerating their individual miseries, and ending with an eloquently understated “… and I’m, you know.” These small scenes of interaction between the five carry the show’s real emotional freight, and as long as the potentially healing effect that Prairie’s story, true or not, is having on them is the focus, it can be forgiven its excesses elsewhere. But then comes the ending.
Here’s the thing: one of the less pressing debates that has dogged 2016 is the “is X television or is it a movie?” question, and it has had the effect of making us all realize that the lines between those traditions are blurred and becoming more so. But while it’s exciting to witness a show that challenges that formal binary (Batmanglij himself has obliquely referred to it as an eight-hour movie) it also points to the biggest problem with “The OA.” When it takes its pleasingly episodic structure, populated with well-drawn characters with whom we’d happily spend more time (all good TV attributes), and ker-plunks them all into a gotcha last-minute “twist” resolution as though trying to force this TV show into a movie shape, it stumbles, and stumbles hard.
The “Signs“-esque climax (and I like “Signs”!) is not simply unearned and rather illogical, with the few breadcrumbs of foreshadowing not amounting to anything worth such a big a left-turn, it is also in deeply dubious taste. There are some events so raw and real and tragic that they need to be handled with extraordinary sensitivity (if at all) in fiction, if they’re not to come across as exploitative, but here the seriousness of the climactic event only serves to heighten the silliness of its resolution. Like, say, a marathon bombing being averted by a troupe of mimes.
So do we assess “The OA” as TV, whereby we often forgive overall impressive shows for a single-episode fail, or do we judge it like a movie where the continuous story it tells builds to a final-act climax, that is the key part of the whole endeavor? Does its finale cripple the show or just mildly sprain its ankle? Will you feel cheated and foolish for having drawn down against such a compromised payoff, or, on aggregate, happy with the return on investment? Like so much else in “The OA” which is mostly a well-executed, sincere-to-a-fault attempt to grapple with some enticingly enigmatic questions about liminality — the space between life and death, truth and fiction, the spiritual and the physical — the answer is probably neither one nor the other. But even if that’s the case (and it’s maybe the best-case scenario) then still, what a shame, that something with such strong, shimmery elements and such a distinctive sensibility should net out, like so many less worthy, less ambitious, less eccentric and less inventive shows, at “in between.” [B-]