“Aren’t you curious as to how it ends?” someone asks early on in The OA, Netflix’s enslaving new sci-fi drama. It’s an apt question, given that the eight-installment series–part girl-goes-missing mystery, part multi-dimension travelogue–has been rigged with the kind of plot pivots and character reveals designed to lure you in further with each episode. But it’s also a fitting query for a show that, in many ways, is a story about storytelling: About the way narratives allow us to commune and connect; about the ways they can play out, unseen, in front of our very eyes; about they ways they encourage obsession. The OA provokes Deep Thoughts on all of these ideas, while also functioning as a happily pulp-splattered thriller, full of mad scientists and secret rooms. Sometimes it’s gorgeous; sometimes it’s absolutely hooey. Yet it’s impossible not to want to explore The OA further.
So: Aren’t you curious as to how it begins? If so, be warned that pretty much everything about The OA can be considered spoiler-worthy (in fact, the network has treated the show as a sort of end-of-the-year surprise, releasing little more than a cryptic trailer). Still, it’s safe enough to note that the series is initially centered on the return of Prairie Johnson (played by Brit Marling, who co-created the series with director Zat Batmanglij), a blind girl who’d disappeared from her midwestern home seven years prior, only to finally show up on a bridge, looking dazed, and seemingly determined to kill herself. Instead, she’s reunited with her parents, who quickly notice that something’s off about their now twentysomething daughter. There are the strange scars on her back, for instance. And her insistence on referring to herself as “The OA.” And, of course, the fact that she can now see.
Prairie, whom Marling inhibits with the just right amount of post-trauma stiltedness and wide-eyed openness, becomes a curio object in her gloomy, over-sprawling McMansionville of a neighborhood, which is filled with sad-sack suburbanites. Several of them are soon lured into Prairie’s orbit, including a lonely, awkward high-school teacher (played by The Office‘s Phyllis Smith) and a drug-dealing dipshit (Patrick Gibson). Along with a few other troubled souls–neighbors who’ve lived near each other for years, but are only now really getting to know one another–they meet up every night in an abandoned house, where, in a candle-lit attic, Prairie fills them in on the last seven years of her life.
Those who want to experience The OA in all its confident cuckoo-ness may want to turn back now. But for everyone else, here’s as loose of an outline as you can get: During her late-night storytelling sessions, Prairie claims that, via a series of deeply troubling events, she can bypass death by accessing a starry, afterlife astral plane that looks straight out of a Yayoi Kusama exhibit. She operates on her own frequency–a sort of finely attuned yet impossible-to-understand relationship with the cosmos–and this ability, she tells the crowd, eventually puts her on the radar of a brilliant, lone-wolf scientist (Jason Isaacs) who wants to put Prairie’s powers to use, placing her in a sort of human terrarium alongside others who’ve survived death.
Every night, and every episode, finds Prairie’s story growing deeper and weirder, full of terrifying near-escapes and traumatic deaths–prompting her newfound followers to obsess over every detail, and to bond over their shared fixation. Is she telling them the truth about her past, or using these wild tales to avoid facing it? And how will they know either way?
It’d be unwise to reveal much else, partly because the show’s surprises, even the semi-ridiculous ones, are worth experiencing first-hand–and partly because certain elements of The OA are hard to explain while keeping a straight face. There’s a new-age earnestness to the show that can manifest itself in deeply goofy ways, and there are enough logic deficiencies to spike America’s TV-recap word-count levels to dizzying new heights (especially in the show’s troubling, and seriously troubled, season finale).
Still, Batmanglij and Marling–who previously collaborated on the high-minded if chilly indies Sound of My Voice and The East–maintain a potboiler momentum that keeps things moving, even when the show occasionally gets too high on its own L. Ron Hubbardian hubbub. And part of the excitement of The OA is the sheer fun of watching metaphysics and melodrama get hurled together in strange but decidedly original new ways. When was the last time you watched a TV series and thought, “Oh, I get it–it’s kinda like if Shane Carruth made The Silence of the Lambs while at a yoga retreat”? The OA may be as disarming and erratic as its heroine, but its creators have managed to instill the hour-drama with all sorts of plus-sized ideas–from the inter-dimensionality of our worlds to the inter-connectivity of our lives–while respecting the rituals of the medium itself. That doesn’t always make for a perfect TV show. But it does make for a pretty great story.