What lies beyond: ‘The OA’ is a half-baked mystery show

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

When “The OA” appeared in my Netflix recommendations queue in mid-December, I was excited. I recalled “Making a Murderer,” 2015’s end-of-year gift from the streaming video service. The true crime documentary was an enthralling and impossible-not-to-binge treat that got many folks through their holidays hangovers. “The OA,” a sci-fi mystery drama about a blind woman who miraculously reappears with her sight after seven years missing, seemed like it might provide a similar fix. However, like the rest of 2016, it was a disappointment.

Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the eight-episode first season is an odd thing — mixing elements of science fiction and fantasy with religious symbolism and New Age hokum. Marling stars as Prairie, a troubled orphan who is blinded in a near-death experience as a child. She comes to live with an older couple in suburban Michigan, where she is plagued by vivid and prophetic dreams written off as mental illness. In her early 20s, she runs away chasing the images in her dreams, which she hopes will lead her back to her birth father. Along the way, she is kidnapped by a scientist conducting tests on near-death-experience survivors in search of proof of the afterlife, or alternate dimensions — it’s unclear.

Prairie eventually gets free and finds her way back home. That’s where we meet her, severely traumatized and plagued by guilt for not being able to rescue her fellow captives. She recruits a group of five troubled outcasts — four teenaged boys and a high school math teacher — to help her locate her lost friends. The story uses Prairie’s recruitment and training of these new friends as a framing device to tell her story via flashbacks. Toggling between the two stories helps to break things up, but it still feels clunky at times.

“The OA” feels reminiscent of “Stranger Things,” with its mysteriously powerful female protagonist, bad-guy scientists and misfit teens, but that’s were the similarities end. Where “Stranger Things” succeeds in building tension and telling a spooky, captivating story, “The OA” dithers. The pacing is too slow and the mystery of Prairie, who also calls herself OA — short for Original Angel (*groan*) — is never explained in a way that makes sense or is in any way satisfying.

Marling and Batmanglij seem intent on teasing out the show’s central mystery over time, which is fine. The problem here isn’t so much the show’s refusal to answer the questions it raises — “The Leftovers” has “let the mystery be” with great success — as it is the absurdity of the mystery itself. The metaphysical elements of the show are a hodgepodge of disparate scientific and spiritual concepts, which feel disconnected from any specific philosophical backbone. Again, freestyling in such a manner isn’t a problem; you just have to do a good job at it. And “The OA” does not.

Which brings us to the movements. While in captivity, Prairie and the others learn a series of movements revealed to them during their near-death experiences. These five movements, when put together, allow people to travel between dimensions, or something — again, unclear. Somehow they are the key to rescuing her missing friends. It’s kind of an interesting idea; a series of specific movements that allow people to travel to another plane of existence. In practice, however, the movements look utterly ridiculous. Community college interpretive dance recital comes to mind.

On the positive side, “The OA” is a very pretty show. The direction and cinematography are well done and thoughtful. Scenes of the afterlife — or wherever it’s supposed to be — are gorgeous, mysterious and evocative.

The cast, which consists of relative unknowns and some recognizable character actors (yes, that’s Phyllis from “The Office” and Hershel from “The Walking Dead”) is also solid. The series takes time to develop the characters enough to make us understand why they’d follow Prairie’s plan. Characters in the flashbacks, however, are not quite as fleshed out, with the exception of Emory Cohen’s Homer, who forms a strong bond with Prairie while imprisoned.

Half-baked might be the best way to describe “The OA.” There is an interesting story here. The afterlife and alternate dimensions are big concepts that, when in the right hands, can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, big concepts require a deft hand and confident storytelling to pull them off effectively. This is where “The OA” falters. Perhaps, like “The Leftovers,” the series will find its feet in season two, if it gets one. Until then, we are left with an uneven and unsatisfying piece of television.

CHECK IT OUT

“The OA” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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