First look Netflix UK TV review: The OA
James R | On 16, Dec 2016
Already seen The OA Part 1? Read our spoiler-filled review here.
“Do you want to go back?” someone asks Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) at the start of The OA. They promise her great love, but also great suffering. It’s a moment that requires a big leap, not just from her, but from the audience. We’ll spoil one thing for you now: you will make that leap.
The eight-part series follows the return of Prairie to her home town, seven years after she disappeared. She’s confused. She’s lost. She has strange marks on her back. And when she’s reunited with her parents, she’s never seen them before. The reason for that is simple: she was blind went she went missing. Now? She can see.
It’s a superb hook for a mystery drama and the almost-feature-length first episode alone swiftly establishes this as the new Stranger Things, in terms of curiosity, classy visuals and character depth. But this is far from that familiar retro horror. It’s not even the latest in a recent line of post-kidnapping thrillers (Thirteen, The Missing). From the first 15 minutes, The OA quietly sets itself apart from the pack as a show that’s entirely its own.
Prairie’s return, tellingly, isn’t announced with a high-stakes shouting match or a bloodied walk into a police station; it’s a departure that almost goes unnoticed, first seen on someone’s phone, and that viral footage is what brings her and her parents back together. Scott Wilson and Alice Krige immediately bring a sense of a decades-old relationship with their once-blind daughter to the screen; without words, Prairie only recognises her mother’s face by feeling it. Even the inevitable quarantine that comes with their child’s arrival is executed with care and concern.
That, however, doesn’t stop her trying to escape it and reconnect with the unseen forces that were somehow involved in her disappearance. She’s wildly determined to do so – and it’s not just the shock talking.
Of course, all the people around her – including us – already begin to form theories about what happened. Was she held captive somewhere? Was she mistreated? Did she join some kind of cult? By the end of the opening hour, you’ll scribble out most of your initial thoughts, so best not bother. Instead, pick up that other piece of paper you’ve got lying around; you may need to make space on your list of the year’s best TV shows.
“Being blind made me listen,” Prairie observes at one point. “And it made people underestimate me.” That subversion of expectation is part of what makes The OA’s introduction so breathtaking, not by delivering some huge, conventional twist, but in the way that writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij effortlessly flow from one narrative to another. While people start to set up the usual milestones for a girl-returns-home story, The OA is somewhere over to the left of the field making something brand new. It’s all about casting off those presumed projections; there’s more to her story than her miraculous eyesight, and there’s more to her than her return home. She’s not a label, or a stock type, or even a crazy freak. She’s something more complex. “I didn’t disappear,” she reminds the police. “I was present for all of it.”
There is something of the eerie in the air, a lingering mood of things that aren’t normal, whether it’s vivid dreams, strange nosebleeds, or just the dazzling darkness that occasionally spills across the background. But Marling and Batmanglij ground everything in human interaction, whether that’s a dad looking after his daughter, a girl on the bus with friends, or Prairie talking with troubled school kid Steve (Patrick Gibson). It’s the same kind of down-to-earth approach that made Marling’s breakout role in indie sci-fi Another Earth so astonishing, and so astonishingly believable; it’s less supernatural and more hyper-natural.
Gibson is excellent as the cruel teenager, a guy more concerned with his outside appearance than what’s hidden inside. It’s no coincidence that we spend almost half of the episode with him, just as Prairie delivers one speech on the importance of having sympathy for horrible people. One of the qualities that has always made Brit Marling’s work stand out is the sincere compassion that she brings to the screen. Her facial expressions are always changing, always teasing new emotions, but, most of all, they’re always open; her acting comes with a vulnerability that makes her magnetic to watch. When she pairs up with Batmanglij, that feeds perfectly into his genre-bending craft, resulting in the kind of raw, unpredictable thrillers that resist the urge to be classified as one genre or another; their eco-political drama The East was driven more by character than ideology, while 2011’s sensational Sound of My Voice is a cult gem in every sense of the word.
The duo’s work shares a dizzying quality too, one that is ideal for a Netflix original: not since Amazon’s Transparent has there been a show so gracefully composed for binge-watching, with chapters seamlessly slipping into each other and Netflix even reducing the autoplay gap between them to keep you immersed.
“You have to pretend to trust me until you actually do,” advises Prairie, as she recounts her tale. It’s hard not to. There is a bigger picture to uncover that will have you hooked, from the hint of a global scale and an important mission to the knowledge that Emory Cohen is soon to appear as the enigmatic Homer and the ominous suggestion that perhaps not having her sight spared Prairie from seeing what was to come. But even before the answers are delivered, it’s a joy just to watch the story unfold in the hands of such accomplished storytellers. The opening credits alone are worth watching for; when they finally come, they’re arguably the most satisfying opening titles in recent memory.
As we bridge (note the shape of the letter “A” in the show’s title) the gap between known and unknown, taking a dive into the strange waters Brit and Zal have mapped out, that earnestness remains, all the way through to the jaw-dropping final 15 minutes. “Do you want to go back?” someone asks Prairie. Given the choice of love, but only love that comes with suffering, Brit and Zal choose to go back every time. The urge to do the same and re-watch the first part is the only thing that will stop you from binge-watching the other seven in one go. We recommend the latter.
All episodes of The OA are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.