A young woman surprises everyone by turning up out of the blue to deliver a tale full of mystery and horror. That’s the premise of this eight-part show, which stars Brit Marling and was co-written by the actress and the show’s director, Zal Batmanglij, with whom she previously collaborated on the films Sound of My Voice and The East. It also describes the odd manner of the show’s arrival, given that Netflix chose to release The OA today with virtually no advance warning.
Marling plays a character named Prairie, who vanished seven years before the start of the show but has now reappeared, apparently the victim of an abduction. The first time we see her, Prairie seems to be trying to take her own life by jumping from a bridge. However, after surviving the fall, she insists she is not suicidal — and that’s far from the only mysterious thing about her. Prairie was blind when she disappeared, and now she can see. Marling’s character also has strange scarring on her back and wants to be called “The OA.”
Where has Prairie been all this time? She declines to discuss this subject with the FBI and is equally shy about revealing details to her deeply concerned parents, who are played by Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) and Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead). Instead, she gathers a quartet of high school students and one of their teachers (Phyllis Smith) and slowly relates her tale to them, night after night, in a never-completed house in the Michigan town where they live.
We won’t say much more about the plot of The OA, which, like the similarly science fiction-infused Stranger Things, deals in secrets and surprises, although the two shows are otherwise very different. The first season of Stranger Things was a deliberate throwback that paid obvious homage to the films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg and the books of Stephen King, among many other influences. While Marling and Batmanglij could be accused of magpie-ing a couple of the show’s twists from other sources, for the most part, The OA very much inhabits its own world. Even when one character references Stanley Kubrick — whose 2001: A Space Odyssey does share some DNA with the show — she is met with the response “What’s Kubrick?” and the subject is pursued no further. If Stranger Things is an immediately yummy, nostalgia-inducing bowl of Count Chocula then The OA is a meal both fresher and more exotic, while still succeeding as a televisual page-turner.
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One of the things we can reveal about the show is that the cast is terrific across the board, with Smith expanding on the melancholic side of her character from The Office and Jason Isaacs perfectly inhabiting his part of a scientist obsessed with near-death experiences. Marling, meanwhile, is utterly believable in a role that is part-question mark and part-open wound, no matter how weird her tale becomes. The result an impressive and enthralling yarn, which makes you hope that its star will not herself be missing from our screens — whether big or small — for too long. B+