The OA (Netflix, Season 1, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij)
A young woman is caught on camera jumping off a bridge. She doesn’t die, and an older couple watching television coverage recognize the woman as their daughter, Prairie who has been missing for seven years. The biggest shock comes when they find she has been miraculously cured of her blindness. Prairie hunkers down in the unfinished subdivision her parents live in while meeting an eclectic assortment of young people and a high school teacher. This group becomes her greatest friends, the ones whom she confides the secret of what happened to her in the last seven years and why she no longer goes by Prairie but The O.A.
For the majority of the pilot episode, I wasn’t too keen on the series. Nothing stuck out as particularly interesting. There was a slightly intriguing mystery in The O.A. losing her blindness, but all the pieces felt very spread apart, and nothing was a great hook. Then the last fifteen minutes started. Out of nowhere a powerful musical score swells, the credits begin (which I hadn’t noticed did not play at the beginning of the episode), and we found ourselves in a place very different than where we started. This is where I was hooked. As The O.A. tells her story, it was pretty impossible for me not to become engrossed.
The series hits a note very reminiscent of Lost. Lost was and is one of my favorite television shows of all time. When I reflect back on the first season, I have realized that the mysteries (polar bears, smoke monster, the hatch) while intriguing were not the primary factor that caused me to come back week after week. The relationships between the characters and how they were revealed one piece at a time are what still resonates with me. So many Lost clones got that part wrong and overloaded their pilots with too many bits of strangeness and mystery hooks. They forgot that characters are the core of a good piece of fiction.
The O.A. is a show that is nothing without its characters and their relationships. The obvious center of the show is The O.A. and Homer, two captives who have been to the same places beyond most people’s understanding. Their compressed seven-year relationship is full of trials and struggles and an ending full of beautiful frustration, yet the hope that the story is not over yet. My personal favorite relationship was that of Steve and Betty. Steve begins the show as an incredibly unlikable teenage prick. He is a drug dealer, obsessed with the physical over the spiritual, quick to anger and jealousy. He assaults a fellow student for no particularly good reason. He is someone we should naturally root against.
Betty is a teacher at the local high school who has suffered a loss. None of her colleagues actually know about it, but through a series of circumstance, she and The O.A. meet to talk about Steve. Our protagonist’s supernatural empathy allows her to see beyond the strict authoritarian teacher and seek to understand. The way Betty changes and the way she sees Steve by the end of the series is beautiful. Playing Betty is the remarkable Phyllis Smith, who you may know as Phyllis from The Office. She is one of those wonderful character actors who endear themselves to you. It is easy for an actress like Ms. Smith to be typecast after a long run on a popular network series. But in The O.A. she breaks away from our preconceived notions. She portrays a regular person process a tremendous grief and coming out on the other end an incredibly empowered woman.
This is not a show for everyone. Another similarity it has with Lost is that it features a nebulous type of supernatural. Science and new age philosophy weave together to present ideas that ludicrous so to enjoy the show you have to suspend your disbelief. I would argue that the character development being done is heightened by the more fantastic elements of the show, so they are valuable parts of the overall piece. The O.A. ends on a cliffhanger and a second season has been announced. I am intensely eager to see where the series goes next because it spent its first eight episodes flipping my expectations around at every turn.