Many have debated what awaits us all when we die. Is this life we all life the only one we’ll get? Is there an afterlife from which we ascend to if we have lived a good life? Or is it something like reincarnation or something along metaphysical lines? The possibilities are plentiful and it’s a question that philosophers and theologians have studied and debated for centuries with no one really any closer to the answer.
It’s this idea of people claiming to have experienced a glimmer of what lies on the other side when they claim to see that “light at the end of the tunnel” that serves as the basis for Netflix’s thought provoking and perplexing series The OA.
Prairie Johnson has suddenly reappeared after having been missing for seven years. In her absence the previously blind woman can now see and instead of answering to her name, instead refers to herself The OA. Unwilling to tell the story of her whereabouts to her parents or the authorities, OA/Prairie gathers together a disparate group of people who she begins to tell an incredible story, dealing with her childhood in Russia, the loss of her sight and of her experience in captivity, all in the hope that she can reunite with a fellow captive named Homer.
Before I start this review proper I should warn readers who have not watched the series that while I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum as best I can, I will have to reveal some spoilers in order to make my point on some issues. So consider this a warning.
This series is perhaps the best definition of a mixed bag in terms of a television experience, there are some great things about this series that make it stand above other shows of its genre, but it also has some truly crippling flaws that repeatedly drag it down and prevent it from being a truly great series.
Let’s start with what works in this series.
The acting from the cast is excellent throughout, with the varied members of the ensemble cast all really committed to the characters and making them feel real. Leading actress (and co-creator) Brit Marling is a fascinating as the titular OA, a mysterious individual who manages to convey vulnerability, yet also manages to hint that she is perhaps much more powerful than people initially think.
Scott Wilson (perhaps best known as Herschel on The Walking Dead) and Alice Krige are also excellent as OA/Prairie’s adoptive parents with both coming across as warm and affectionate, yet managing to convey a deep struggle to keep it together when dealing with the pressures of having their daughter return.
The most intriguing character, however, is Jason Isaacs’s “Hap” a doctor who wishes to use the near death experiences of OA/Prairie and others like her to figure out scientifically if there is life after death, or if near-death experiences actually lead to something else entirely.
Issacs is brilliant in the role, perfectly managing to create a character that is sympathetic as someone who wishes to use his knowledge for the greater good of humanity, while also being somewhat reprehensible character due to the questionable methods he uses in his attempt to achieve this aim.
The fine acting is complimented by the excellent cinematography with it ranging from excellent, with some creative camera work and visual composition making for some impressive sights, to downright beautiful at times as in the moments in which OA/Prairie is transported to, a room of stars, essentially limbo, being a truly magnificent sight to behold.
The story is also an incredibly fascinating one with it being filled with mysterious twists and turns, intrigue, fascinating characters, and it keeps dangling just enough information to keep you coming back for more.
Yet, the story is also where some of the series’ worst qualities lay and it’s where the series begins to really irritate. The story, while fascinating and offering much to keep the viewer returning, is told with a pace so slow that it’s at risk of being overtaken by a glacier and while I don’t mind a slow burn story, this series pushes this idea to the extreme.
Another issue is the manner in which the series handles its story, with it often dangling potentially interesting elements that could add a whole new dimension to things, only to completely drop the ball and go down a path that is sometimes ridiculous.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the final episode, which seems to suggest a twist that if it was true, might just border on genius, only for the final moments of the episode to essentially discard any idea that a twist was even going to occur.
I wish I could go into more detail, but I don’t wish to spoil too much, all I’ll say is that the final episode somehow while making sense in the context of the story, turns an event that should be a horrific atrocity into a moment of bizarre and unintentional hilarity.
This fault also extends to the dialogue which while fine, often feels pretentious at best and at worst insufferable to the point of inducing anger. I don’t mind films or shows that deal with heavy metaphysical or philosophical discussions, but I really hate it when they do so in a manner that just makes me want to punch the screen and shout “Oh shut up”.
The sometimes bizarre dialogue also serves to ruin otherwise well written and well-acted scenes, such as when OA/Praire’s mother angrily and tearfully rages against how strangers perceive and take advantage of her daughter’s status and her own lack of knowledge on her daughter’s disappearance. It’s a powerful and moving scene that Alice Kriege performs beautifully, only for it to be ruined by OA spouting some odd dialogue about how the mysterious markings on her back are instructions that will help her ultimately travel to another dimension. Again in the context of the series, it makes sense, but it still feels really stupid sometimes and it often threatens to drag the series down.
Overall, The OA is a beautifully shot, well acted, captivating, yet pretentious and utterly infuriating series that despite its many problems I still think people should at least give a chance and watch.
It might not be a show for everyone, but I imagine that it might just hold the attention of the more patient of viewers, and the story is indeed interesting one despite its numerous missteps I feel it takes.
With a season 2 due in the future, there is potential for the creators to iron out the problem areas and perhaps streamline the sometimes convoluted and complicated story, till then check it out if you’re curious enough and you might just find it worth your time.
[rating=3] | Graeme Robertson
Fantasy, Drama | USA, 2016 | 15 | Out Now | Netflix Original | Dir.Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling | Brit Marling, Jason Isaacs, Scott Wilson, Alice Krige, Phyllis Smith