The OA ๐Ÿ˜Ÿ TV Show Review

Written by Thelonia

If you asked me what The OA is about, I’d be hard pressed to give you an answer.

A good chunk of it is about angels, another chunk is a horror movie about captivity, there’s some pseudo-science about near death experiences, a lot more magical interpretive dance than you’d expect, and enough teen angst to drown yourself in, which you might want to do once you finally make it to the end of the 8 episode long series.

The Premise: Prairie Johnson (wide-eyed Brit Marling) is rescued after jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Turns out she went missing seven years ago, and has only now resurfaced, with strange scars on her back, and her eyesight miraculously restored. Now calling herself “the OA,” she makes connections with local high school kids Steve (a bully who sort of gets better, played by Patrick Gibson), his sad buddy Jesse (Brendan Meyer), shy trans kid Buck (Ian Alexander), an overworked jock nick-named French (Brandon Perea), and their teacher BBA, Betty Broderick-Allen (Phyllis Smith). They meet every night in an abandoned house where Steve deals drugs, for Prairie to recount to them her story of where she’s been for seven years. This is the framing device for her narrative, told over several nights.

By the end of the first night’s story, you really start to wonder why they’ve all been brought here.

This is answered in the last episode. And it is very, very dumb.


Prairie’s story goes sort of like this: she was born Nina, the daughter of a Russian Oligarch (played by Daredevil’s Nikolai Nikolaeff, who I’m starting to think may be getting typecast), who, after a school bus full of young rich Russian children goes careening off a bridge (her included), dies and comes back, but with no eyesight. Her father, deciding that Russia is too dangerous for her, sends her to America, to a boarding school for the blind. But when news comes that he’s died, she goes to live (รก la Little Princess, but worse) in a brothel, where she takes care of the babies that ‘come and go.’

It is from here that she is adopted into her white-bread American family by Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel (Scott Wilson) Johnson, who come to the brothel (though they do not know it is one) looking for a baby and take away a young Nina (now, Prairie, because her eyes are the ‘color of the prairie sky’) instead.

The episodes skip through Prairie’s teen years (presumably because they found it hard to make Brit Marling, or her 6 year old actor self look very teenage-ish for long), but we do get some important information: she has dreams, which she interprets as premonitions, that come with nosebleeds.

I’m going to hold off on the comparisons, but keep this in mind.

Her parents keep her heavily medicated, because she sleepwalks in Russian and plays with dolls (and knives), which concerns them a bit.

After receiving a dream about the statue of liberty and her father, she decides to run away from home to go to New York for her 21st birthday, and meet him. She does not, but she does come up with a second plan: play the violin, hoping that he’d hear her while commuting one day, and find her.

He doesn’t, but someone does.

Dr. Hap (Lucius Malfoy himself, Jason Isaacs) hears her violin playing in the subway and rushes to meet Prairie, catching her interest when he guesses she’s died before. He can tell because he studies NDEs (Near Death Experiences), and offers to take care of her if she agrees to be a part of his study (along with a few others). He flies her to an undisclosed location, his house in the woods (alarm bells should be going off), and locks her in the basement.

Although it is admittedly, cleaner than other torture basements I've seen in film, so that's good.

Turns out, she’s the latest in a series of subjects Dr. Hap has kidnapped and brought to his creepy house to study. The others are confused former jock Homer (Brooklyn’s Emory Cohen), Joan-Jett look-a-like Rachel (Sharon Van Etten), and white man with dreads Scott (Will Brill).

Prairie manages to get upstairs privileges, meaning she becomes Hap’s de-facto housekeeper, due to her blindness and Hap’s creepy fascination with her. As the episodes go on, escape attempts come and go, one ending with Prairie’s sight returning after she dies again.

This is where things get weirder.

Hap routinely takes the subjects out of their cage, after gassing them into submission (literally, it’s eventually discovered that the gas doesn’t knock them out, it makes them compliant), and kills them in a drowning apparatus, recording the ‘sounds’ of their death (and subsequent return).

They figure out, through a series of linked air holes in between the plastic cages, that they can suck out the gas from one person’s cage on either side, so that they can retain their autonomy and their memories. Perfecting this takes years apparently, though it is hard to tell the passage of time, since no one seems to be aging, and apart from Prairie, their hair all stays the same (even Rachel’s bangs never change – is Hap a licensed cosmetologist?).

The real question of The OA: who's cutting Homer's hair?
Regardless, it apparently takes them years for Homer to be able to be knocked out and killed without the gas. And after he dreams of being in a white hospital-like building, and swallowing a sea creature (Prairie’s second NDE ended with her swallowing a dove), the group realizes that they are being given ‘movements’ and that those who have dreams of swallowing creatures now have ‘something’ inside of them.

What the hell are the movements?

I’m so glad you asked.

This is the point where the show started becoming too silly for its own good (the main flaw here is that it doesn’t seem to realize it has become silly – instead continuing on as if every discovery is a sign of something greater, something supernatural. Something religious.

The movements are literal movements. Prairie is taught the first, Homer the second. When they practice it in their little cages, it looks as though they are doing tai-chi via jazz hands. When Scott gets killed during Hap’s experiment (for real this time), they do their dance for hours, which, thanks to jump cuts and editing, looks sort of ridiculous, but you could still buy it.

It brings Scott back to life.

It literally reverses all the blood back into his body and he is fine, he is okay, they danced him to health.

It's only going to get sillier from here on folks.

And now the problems really start. Once the show becomes less focused on the human element (which is inherent in both the framing world of “high school is shitty” and the basement world of “humans are awful”), and becomes self-involved with being about a greater cosmic answer, it becomes ridiculous.

As Prairie’s story becomes more and more insane, eventually including another victim, Cuban guitarist Renata (Paz Vega), whose kidnapping has one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in a sex scene of all time, the real world’s story becomes more interesting.

Always hard when you start third-wheeling your own kidnappings.

The kids all have their own lives and problems, most of which become more interesting by the end. French, whose mother is chronically terrible, feels bittersweet about his full ride scholarship because it starts to seem like everyone around him is a racist old white man. Buck, who could have been given more screen time, is dealing with a Father who refuses to acknowledge his chosen identity (constantly dead-naming him, though it doesn’t seem to be malicious, just out of ignorance). Steve, who could have been given less screen time, is a bully whose sensitive side you are eventually supposed to see. I don’t. He is unsympathetic to an almost astonishing degree, punching a kid in the throat (breaking it) in the first episode because he might be a kid his fuck buddy likes (might), siccing his dog on Prairie because she asks him for Wifi and has a camera on her, and, even after all the character development that I thought happened, stabs her in the leg with a pencil for pretty much no reason in the last episode. Jesse, who has one scene by himself, could probably be written more interesting (he does however watch Stranger Things in that one scene, so props to him there). Ms. Broderick-Allen is strange and kind of like that one teacher who really thought they could connect with you, but has such a kind and honest personality, that she becomes one of the strongest and most sympathetic characters on the show.

Bonding over Don Knotts, you don't see that much anymore.

Apart from her night stints, Prairie is dealing with the increasing paranoia of her parents (leading up to her father running to her room in the middle of the night with a gun drawn on her when she wakes up from a nightmare screaming). Her only time when you feel like you can feel her really being honest are in scenes where she talks with FBI de-facto therapist Elias Rahim (Riz Ahmed). Those scenes where interesting in that, though she doesn’t tell him anything directly about where she’s been for the past seven years, she lets things slip to him that she doesn’t to anyone else.

Probably good that she's not just only talking to teenage boys.

Another scene striking in its humanity was one where Prairie goes to diner with her parents, and gets accosted by a teenager who snaps a few pictures of herself and Prairie after telling her she was so brave after being beaten and raped like that. Her mother, angry by the insinuation and the picture alike, starts an argument that culminated in Prairie saying “I am the Original Angel” (hence, OA) and her mother slapping her. Which, going to have to be honest, isn’t the most out of line reaction to that line.

That night, we get to see the events of Prairie’s disappearance. After Hap’s ‘experiment’ is discovered by an cop buddy of his, the two make a deal: the cop’s silence for a cure for his wife’s ALS. Prairie and Homer team up again to dance her to health, after which she tells them a story about how she died when she was young, and an angel told her she would help two captive angels later on in life. This is the moment. She teaches them the last movement they need, promptly getting shot afterwards by an escaped Hap, who gets the cop’s gun when he leaves it behind in a hurry to get to his wife.

Hap then drags Prairie out in a car and dumps her by the side of the road, saying that they’re going to leave without her, and she won’t be able to find them. He has the last movement too now, and so he’s beyond this Earth.

Prairie in the ‘real world’ reveals that the reason she has brought together these kids (and their teacher) is that she needs five people to perform the five movements to transport her to another dimension so she can save her friends.

Eventually, all the parents figure out where their kids have been going, and are admittedly not that pleased to find them in an abandoned house with the neighborhood weirdo and a teacher.

They are all shepherded back to their houses, banned from seeing Prairie again, and return to their hum-drum high school lives.

Still, this is not before French breaks into Prairie’s house and finds (gasp) a box under her bed with books about: Russian Oligarchs, Angels, NDEs, and Homer’s the Illiad. This, he concludes, spreading the books over the trunk of a car, is proof Prairie made the entire story up.

Because if someone reads up on something that's affecting them, THEY ARE LYING.

The next day, they are all back to school, forgotten acquaintances who once more sit with their cliques (Mean-Girls style). The camera lingers on them all in the cafeteria, slow-mo laughter and all.

Last Ten Minutes Spoilers aka: Who Is Responsible for This???

The last ten minutes of the show had so much buildup. The entire show is a story within a story to get to the ultimate point of “here are some moves you can do to really center yourself to your core also open a door to another dimension” by way of Prairie’s story. So how does all this buildup in human emotion and sci-fi tech blabble pay off?

The expression on a friend’s face changes as he looks off into the middle distance. The camera pans back beyond the cafeteria glass window. A single figure, in an armored vest, carrying an AK strolls onto the grass.
My notes at this point just were a repetition of “no” and “fuck you.”

The immediate thought “Oh no, please don’t go there” crosses your mind.

The gun goes off.

As everyone ducks for cover under the cafeteria desks, you ask yourself “Is this really where this silly show wants to go?” The gunman, whose face you only see from far away, blurry, sports a Dylan Roof-esque haircut. He walks into the cafeteria. You follow his feet as he walks past cowering children.

Steve and French make eye contact. You go “No.”

Steve, French, Buck, Jesse, Broderick-Allen, they all get up. And start to dance.

It is at the same time on of the silliest and most offensive things I could think of.

It was like the end of the boring Robert Pattinson romance movie that ends with a reveal shot of him in the Twin Towers (on September 11th!!!! omg!!!).

It’s a sign that no one involved wanted to step back and go…maybe this isn’t the show to try and tackle gun violence in schools. It’s a sign that they thought this show was serious enough to tackle that subject, and do it well. It’s a sign that no one knew that their show was not that good, or well-constructed. It’s cheap, it’s lazy, and it’s going for an emotional depth that the show doesn’t deserve.

I literally just stared in slack-jawed horror.

The interpretive dance seems to work, in that the gunman stops, looking on in baffled confusion long enough to get taken down by a cafeteria worker.

A last volley of gunshots ring out and the characters all look to each other, and then to a window, where Prairie stands, a shattered hole in the glass just at the level of her heart. She smiles.

Pictured: Some Bullshit
She gets taken away in an ambulance while her narration about the invisible current of dimensional travel plays. This ambulance, it seems to suggest, is her invisible current. Steve runs after the ambulance screaming “Take me with you.”

The credits roll.

Prairie wakes up in a white room, looks up and says: “Homer.”

My approximate emotional reaction.

You get the impression that the writers built he story like Jenga, stacking more and more plot to keep you interesting going “how is this all gonna connect???” only to smack the entire tower over at the last second because there was no other way to end it all, and they didn't want to admit that, so they say that the entire point was that it didn't make sense.

I don’t know what this show is fundamentally, and I don't think the creators (Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij) do either. 

The thing I can most closely describe it as is an experiment. It’s friends reading weird shit on the internet and turning to each other and going “you know what would be a good idea for a movie.”

The twist that maybe Prairie is just straight up insane is boring, and more than that, nonsensical.

The OA starts off wooden, but hits its stride by the end of the first episode. From there on it keeps your attention, if only in the same way as you cannot stop yourself looking at a car race, which slowly but surely is heading towards a collision, which, right as it looks like everything might have been averted, an elephant comes out of nowhere and just smashes the car to smithereens. I’m not sure if it needs a second series – and I’m honestly not sure that the writers would be able to do anything that could make the ending of these 8 episodes not ridiculous. I’d say, if you want to watch, skip most of the last episode, but in the end, while the OA held my attention the entire way through, there are some basic concepts at the core of it that just do not hold up in any way, particularly when they try to connect it to reality.

Shows like this do their best when they fully engage in their crazy universes. Its Netflix predecessors Sense8 and Stranger Things did that, by creating their world and sticking to it, weird rules and all. The OA tried to mix too many concepts and worlds, like a dimension hopper, and in the end, the finished show is a confusing mess that does not realize how silly it is.

Watch if you have the time, but maybe don’t go out of your way to do it. Any maybe skip most of the last episode. At least if you have any sort of barometer for bullshit.

The OA is available for streaming on Netlix.

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