Film & TV

The OA Confounds and Rewards. Plus: Other Netflix Improvisations

Like craft beers or your news feed, Netflix’s niche-viewing categories are forever growing more micro-specific. Its new drama series, an eight-part bafflement called The OA, could only be categorized as a Sexually Frank Spiritual Locked-Room Suburban Afterlife Mad Scientist Communitarian Interpretive-Dance Ripped-From-the-Headlines Horror Puzzle Mystery. Its flavors never unite into a singular taste, and it’s likely many viewers will find it entirely unpalatable. But I confess to being fascinated and even moved by much of it, especially the tense later episodes — at least until a howlingly mad ending that even Breitbarters might concede warrants a trigger warning.

It’s often courageous in its demands upon our empathy, in its creators’ belief that viewers are up for an intimate epic that defies categorization. The series always seems like it’s just one revelation away from not just coherence but transcendence. Its creators aren’t offering pleasurable pastiche, as the Duffer brothers did with Stranger Things. Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij are trying to express something about our inability to listen to each other, a simple idea that you might miss at first, as you growl at the TV, “What the hell this?”

The OA finds its form near the end of the first episode, which runs 71 minutes. (Transcendence takes commitment!) Marling stars as a once-blind young woman who, after going missing for seven years, returns to her parents’ suburban Michigan home with her eyesight restored. Her folks call her Prairie, but she prefers “The OA” (pronounced oh ay, Tony Danza–style); if you can guess what those initials stand for and not groan, the show may be for you. Prairie shirks questions about where she’s been, why she’s back, the miracle of her eyes, the scars on her back that suggest some grisly shorthand notation. When she can duck her parents’ supervision, she tries to go online to research a boy named Homer. She also throws in with prickish Steve, a neighborhood drug dealer/bully (Patrick Gibson) who has set up shop in an unfinished home abandoned by its builders in the downturn. Steve’s cruel and stupid in his first scenes, but The OA soon joins Stranger Things in Netflix’s surprise movement toward bully humanization.

Prairie enlists Steve and other lonely souls from the high school to show up at midnight in the attic of that empty house to help her with some task she won’t come out and identify. (The Office’s Phyllis Smith plays a teacher whose pained shyness proves as quietly comic as it is heartrending.) Her team assembled, Prairie goes all Scheherazade, dazzling with a story that she can’t possibly tell all of in a night. It’s just one tale, her convoluted history, which involves dream visions, a Russian childhood, tragic deaths, busking in Grand Central, an alternate dimension and — well, stop reading now if you suffer the misapprehension that knowing basic information about a premise can somehow “spoil” complex narrative art.

The first episode ends with Prairie’s listeners enthralled but the story barely started. She keeps it up in subsequent installments, night after night, between daytime trips to Costco with her adoptive mom. At first, it seems that her past will just keep flowering in fluky new directions, but it soon gets mired in a grim, familiar plot: A scientist kidnaps Prairie and imprisons her with other survivors of near-death experiences, and we spend several episodes watching her and a cast of characters get subjected to experiments that they’re too drugged to recall. That’s The OA right there: a succession of terrible mysterious events whose very basics are hidden even from the characters.

The riddles and story points sprawl out, as they tend to on Netflix dramas, where individual episodes aren’t their own discretely shaped continents but random chunks of the full Pangaea. An episode will end without climax or cliffhanger, and after a five-second pause the next one starts, differentiated only by the credits overlaying some early scenes. That can be maddening. But it’s also liberating. When is the last time, watching a serialized drama, you weren’t cued by your familiarity with the form to know what to expect?

We can’t call anything that happens in The OA a twist, because a “twist” is only a twist if you already know what the shape should be. Every scene of confinement horror is undercut by one of tenderness; every suggestion of New Age divinity is pierced by teen talk and blasé American swearing; every flight of fancy is grounded by well-observed characters in drab Midwestern everyplaces, gas stations or the Applebee’s parking lot. Even that ending, which has to be seen to be (dis)believed, has all these elements bound up at once: It’s grandiose and everyday, irresponsible and sweetly hopeful, silly and risible but also brave as hell.
Two new Netflix originals also have the feel of being made up as they go. Reggie Watts’s Spatial finds the singular comedian/beat master/improviser onstage crafting off-the-cuff rhythm tracks that he loops and then scats and raps his nonsense over. His songs, like his monologues or The OA’s storytelling, never settle into one clear certain thing — they’re always in the process of growing into something else. They’re truly stranger things. Watts riffs loosely between the numbers, his stray chatter sometimes ripening into something memorable and sometimes not; his métier is improv, and outside the music Netflix dares to let Watts’s rhythms be uncertain, just as they would in a live performance.

Vikram Gandhi’s modest, uncertain Barry is also a study in improvisation. Devon Terrell plays Barack Obama, age 20, newly arrived at Columbia University and unsure that he truly fits in anyplace. The question “Where are you from?” never yields the same answer from the future president, a product of Hawaii and Kansas and Indonesia — at times he even includes Kenya, his father’s country, despite having never been there himself. Barry impresses his professors, hangs with his roommates, reads some Du Bois, discovers what life in the projects is like, tries to distance himself from his gently overbearing mother (Ashley Judd). In class, a white boy asks him why every argument always winds its way back to slavery; on the stoop, a black man shouts him down for not being from the neighborhood. A scene of Barry’s first encounter with a man in drag plays out like Crocodile Dundee’s, all smirky bemusement.

These moments proceed like comic-book panels, each communicating a single point, with little nuance for us to discover. The worst offender: When, talking politics, his first girlfriend (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) asks if he believes in change. Still, two strong passages prove rewarding and thoughtful about how Barry became Barack. Meeting that girlfriend’s parents, who are white, Barry becomes resolutely upbeat and ingratiating, despite being slighted by the father just moments before. Left for us to ponder is a question that might have eaten at you for years: When he rises above it, is he forgiving those who treat him as less than human, or is he defying them?