Netflix’s new series The OA:
Science fiction? Fantasy? Psychological thriller? Crime drama? Mystery?
Good? Bad? Mediocre?
Nonsensical? Am I just too stupid to get it?
Ultimately the question is: Is this worth my time?
That depends on two things. First is, how much is your time worth? That’s not for me to say. The other thing is, how much time will The OA take? Believe it or not, I have to call “SPOILER ALERT” before answering that:
About seven-and-a-half hours.
That’s as much a part of The OA’s mystique as, “Hey, what does ‘OA’ stand for, anyways?” It’s a slow reveal, but you’ll solve it yourself at least two eps before it’s spelled out.
In my review of the lost story arc Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks, I visited that place so familiar to critics — where a work is more important than it is good. The OA is the new mayor of that place.
The series is, as hinted above, equal parts sci-fi, tale of the supernatural, psychodrama, torture porn and procedural. It blends those elements with skill and grace, but stinks at each in isolation. The whole series is predicated on junk science, junk spirituality and junk criminology. Yet on some level The OA is absolutely breathtaking.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. As your neighbor with the prize-winning rose garden can tell you, great beauty often emerges from piles of pure, steaming horseshit.
In the present case, it starts with talented filmmaking. Indie-darling director Zal Batmanglij knows how to set up a shot and is a master of both the artful transition and the sharp left turn. His collaborator is the captivating Brit Marling who is his co-author, peer executive director and lead protagonist. She simply can’t take a bad picture.
Problem is, nor can she express a coherent thought. Marling fancies herself one of those Hollywood actresses who are substantial women in their own right and just happen to have their brilliance encased in ethereal beauty: Greta Garbo, either Hepburn, Julie Newmar, Geena Davis, Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie. But Marling comes off as just another hot chick suffering from delusions of artistic grandeur (looking at you, Daryl Hannah). The most fascinating part of the Batmanglij/Marling collaboration is how, in a series that is so unblinking about all facets of the human experience including sexuality, he manages to photograph her Nordic-ideal nude form so perfectly that she reveals nothing Gypsy Rose Lee wouldn’t.
And the central conceit of the series is that interdimensional portals form, the world is improved and individuals are brought back from the incapacitation and death through the power of modern dance (a specific procession of movements that make the whole cast — even Marling — look absolutely goofy).
And yet, whatever kind of hot mess The OA is as a standalone work, I quickly concede that it is a milestone in the evolution of episodic storytelling. Just like Caddyshack defied critics and redefined comedy, this series is in many ways the first web series to break a slew of the vestigial constraints of broadcast TV. It is the first fully professional production I’ve seen that was conceived, designed and executed for the binge-watcher.
There’s no memorable theme music, no more than the briefest indication that one episode has ended and the next begun. Netflix gives the viewer a five-second countdown then launches into the continuing narrative as a default — you need fast fingers if you really want to view the closing credits.
The episodes aren’t shoehorned into a specific time slot. There’s no formula requiring it to cram or stretch to 60 minutes — OK, you can have an extra 10 minutes for the finale. Each chapter ends where it ends, whether that be 60 minutes or 70 or 30 or 40 or 50. So you can be truly stunned by the timing of a reveal rather than willing-suspension-of-disbelief, respect-the-proscenium stunned.
So watch it. Watch it like it’s a film class assignment, but watch it.
The OA gets a bad rap from me on its merits so, before I go, let me leave you with why it doesn’t deserve the bad rap that others are giving it: “It tries to be too much like Stranger Things but isn’t as good.” I don’t think it compares with Netflix’s summer hit at all, except that they both fall somewhere in the genre drama spectrum and were both released via the same streaming service. The Duffer Brothers and Batmanglij & Marling have two entirely distinct visions. Stranger Things revisits hallowed tropes of the past and The OA breaks them. The newer series has more to do with Twin Peaks than with its immediate predecessor. It also reminded me a little of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I usually refer to as “Eternal Runtime of the Plotless Movie”).
The last episode, though, might remind you of the conclusion of Lost. I know I felt betrayed by the producers. At least this time I only wasted seven-and-a-half hours, not six years. So between that and it being Christmas, I’m in a more forgiving mood.