Netflix has built an army with their Originals.
The most recent addition is a very different kind of soldier. The OA is an experimental—alternatively, just plain odd—story that plays with #sciencefiction concepts at the same time it reaches into the realm of spirituality. Some are saying the show takes itself to seriously, and others have praised the reckless ambition of the story. There's no doubt that The OA is one of the most unique shows of 2016. The real question is this: Is it worth it?
The OA explores so many diverse, heavy themes that the story gets murkier with each episode. It's almost impossible to talk about the show as a whole. You have to take it in pieces. Despite the intriguing (and controversial) concepts scatter-blasted across the screen, The OA has one element it absolutely nails, and it has nothing to do with science fiction at all.
Just How Messy Are We Talking?
Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with half its pieces flipped upside down. That's The OA, a story that operates on four different plot lines. It's important to keep these four pieces in your head. Separate, they don't quite make sense. Together, they reveal one of the most fascinating aspects of the show.
The first plot line is Prairie Johnson. Prairie (played by Brit Marling) reappears after going missing seven years earlier, and she returns with something she didn't have before—her sight. The OA flips the switch on a foggy mystery vibe with its hushed questions about the seven years of blackness, and #BritMarling knocks her performance out of the park.
The second: Prairie and Homer. When we learn Prairie was held captive, the story divulges into a tale of love featuring Prairie and her fellow prisoner, Homer. It's a dark picture of the untimeliness of affection, but it's never cheapened by the cheesy lines and poorly executed ideas that stain the rest of the show.
In third place, we have the Afterlife. Prairie is captured by a scientist, named Dr. Hap, bent on uncovering the truth behind the afterlife. He physically kills each of his subjects for a few minutes, studies what happens next, then brings them back to life and repeats the process. You thought dying once was bad. Just imagine Jason Isaacs drowning you again and again and again.
Fourth, there's The Boys. Well, it's actually four boys and one middle aged teacher named Betty. They're a pretty spectacular group, with a breakout performance by Ian Alexander in the spotlight. They meet with Prairie every night at a partially-constructed house. Prairie tells them her story. Together, they unlock the secrets of life and death and humanity.
They All Have One Thing In Common
Four plot lines is a bit much, especially in a show that only runs eight episodes, and especially in a story that reaches for #sciencefiction at the same time it dabbles in spiritual concepts. Even though each plot line of The OA thrives on different ideas, they all share a base in human emotion.
The OA is a show that's fascinated with relationships. From the tension between Prairie and her parents to the bonds Dr. Hap's prisoners form, there's never a cold moment. The most interesting aspect of each character story is the fact that they all have handicap on the board. A character vice. The OA sets up some pretty spectacular—and often unbelievable—concepts, but the players keep things real by filling the screen with their flaws.
How Emotion Kills It All
Sometimes, the best part of the show is also what hurts it the most. The OA has trouble tying the science fiction elements to the character stories. Why? The human elements of The OA are more interesting than Prairie believing she's the Original Angel and that she can unlock dimensions with a series of dance-like movements.
Near-death-experiences, special Movements, and other dimensions are challenging enough on their own, so when The OA fails to anchor them to the emotional plot lines, it loses its grasp on some of the grandeur other #Netflix Originals have created. It's hard to take the show seriously. There's a line dividing the weird sci-fi from the character arcs, and even though each plot line is tied together by these arcs, the rest of The OA is disconnected.
There's only one moment when everything comes together.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
How Emotion Saves It All
The ending is the most troubling, confusing, and strangely powerful scene I've ever watched in a #TV show. After unveiling the fact that Prairie might have invented the whole story (which still doesn't make some of those sci-fi dance scenes easier to watch), we see the other characters sitting in school, feeling betrayed and alone.
Then the shooter appears.
It happens so fast that nobody onscreen—or anyone watching, for that matter—has time to react. The characters we've grown to love dive under tables as bullets break the windows. But The OA is not a tragedy. Even though the boys have discovered Prairie's story is likely invented, they stand up to face the shooter and begin performing the dimension-unlocking movements. It sounds like a ridiculous scenario, and to be fair, it is. The juxtaposition of science fiction and the harsh reality of a mass shooting doesn't sit well in your gut, especially when the boys succeed in distracting the shooter long enough for him to be tackled by a cafeteria worker. It may seem like it at first, but the Movements aren't really the point of the scene.
The OA focuses on human connection in its final minutes. Remember how each character has a vice? All of those flaws are explored in the show. The shooting scene shines a light on what the main characters could have become, but because they were pulled together by Prairie's fantastic tale, they become a positive force instead.
The OA May Not Work As A Whole, But The Characters Are Worth It
At the end of the show, the weird-as-heck science fiction elements are what everyone wants to talk about. They're vague, open ended, slightly ridiculous ideas that can't help but draw attention. But The OA wins—hands down, no discussion needed—with the characters. It builds a diverse cast and puts them through so many nasty scenarios we get to see what they're really made of. When everything else is foggy, the #characters show us the real meaning of the story.
The OA is a seriously messy show, but it's saved by the emotions of the people who tell the story.