Minor Spoiler Warning for the first season of “The OA.”
What can I say about Netflix’s newest Original Series that doesn’t give away too much? Simply put, any real discussion about the plot, characters and storylines would detract from a new viewer’s experience. This is a series that one must watch with very little prior knowledge to fully enjoy and appreciate the journey that lies ahead. That journey is one that will be incredibly polarizing to fans of the science-fiction, mystery and supernatural genres. With its mind-bending storytelling and captivating characters, “The OA” is an example of the magic touch that Netflix seems to possess.
The impressive roster of science-fiction Netflix Originals continues to grow; “The OA” joins “Sense8” and “Stranger Things,” proving that an interesting premise only works if strong characterization is part of the story. In a time where many of television’s other sci-fi series fail to balance storytelling and character development (HBO’s “Westworld” and Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” are prime examples of a complex and gripping plot with lackluster and underdeveloped characters), Netflix seems to have figured out the formula.
Brit Marling stars as a young woman named Prairie Johnson, who goes missing and returns several years later, restored of her eyesight after being blinded at a young age. The non-linear way of storytelling shows Prairie’s readjustment to life at her adoptive parent’s home; Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige) Johnson are two examples of characters that receive minimal amounts of screen-time and development, which is unfortunate considering their respective actors give powerful performances in the series. As Prairie readjusts to a normal life, her parents try to learn where she disappeared to, but they are mostly unsuccessful at getting anything from Prairie. While Prairie is hesitant to open up to her parents, she does find some trust in an FBI agent, played by the wickedly-talented Riz Ahmed.
Much of the non-linear narrative follows Prairie in the present time as she congregates a group of five residents of the local town, Steve (Patrick Gibson), Jesse (Brendan Meyer), Alfonso (Brandon Perea), Buck (Ian Alexander) and high school teacher Betty, played by the phenomenal Phyllis Smith, who is one of the stand-out actors in this series; each of these characters have their own respective struggles, although they all receive different amounts of focus. This leads to some underwhelming development for characters such as Jesse and Buck. Each night, Prairie assembles the five at an abandoned house to share her story from childhood to present day, with flashbacks showing the events to viewers. Prairie’s story takes several dark turns and leads to an agonizing kidnapping storyline that encompasses much of the overall season. The intensity of this particular storyline and its parallels to the present-day timeline make for some truly great story and character moments.
While much of the plot has been left out of this review for the sake of avoiding spoilers (especially the kidnapping storyline), this is a series that is incredibly deep and thought-provoking from start to finish. With large amounts of philosophical exposition and symbolism, “The OA” could have ended up being lackluster. Thanks to the great characters and their development, minus the few exceptions, this artful series tackles a multitude of broad questions about death, afterlife and humanity; what happens after we die? This is a question that everyone in human history has pondered and “The OA” beautifully explores man’s greatest fear, death. While a second season hasn’t been confirmed, this is a series that would definitely benefit from more story. The eight-episode first season of “The OA” can be streamed on Netflix.