So it’s 2017 and we still don’t know how many people actually watch Netflix’s original programming. Seems like it’s a pretty good number though, since Netflix just keeps churning them out. By my (read: Wikipedia’s) count there are now 67 series which have been produced exclusively for Netflix, with a further 21 series which have been bought and revived after dying on network TV.
That heap-o-shows is oddly democratizing. If you’ve got enough invested in content variety to have a roster, of 100, you don’t worry about tossing several million dollars at Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij and saying “Go nuts!” What they got in return is far from perfect but more than worth the investment.
The OA is the story of a blind foster child (Marling) who goes missing and is spotted years later jumping off a bridge, eyesight apparently restored. She is reunited with her foster parents but struggles to reconnect with them or even share the details of her story. Instead she finds an outlet in telling her tale to a group of teenage boys from the neighborhood. (Phyllis Smith, who most will remember as Phyllis from The Office, is there too, to keep it from being too creepy. Doesn’t work.)
Without spoiling anything, the strangest and most engaging parts of the show occur while Marling’s character (who insists on calling herself “The OA”) talks to these kids, spinning a postmodern tale of sadistic experiments, celestial beings and interdimensional travel. Conclusions about the truth of her claims are left up to the viewer.
The show will have some familiar notes for those who have seen Marling and Batmanglij’s indie hit Sound of My Voice, in which two filmmakers go undercover to infiltrate a cult. The charismatic leader of that cult (Marling) claims to be able to travel through time. But can she? The OA feels like a sequel to that film stylistically, thematically, and kinetically.
Conceptually, the show is fascinating. There is a sort of creative unity to Marling and Batmanglij’s work that I think is only really achievable when the same people are involved in all stages of the creation of a piece, from the inception through to the performance. Every aspect works in harmony to serve the creators’ vision. Other critics have spoken about what a rare thing it is to find that sort of involvement in serialized content but in the web world that’s almost the norm. In that way this is actually the most “webseries-y” series Netflix has made yet.
You’ll notice I’m using words like “fascinating” and “engaging” to describe The OA rather than “great” or “wonderful.” That’s because, while I think the series works as a self-contained piece of art, it isn’t art I would necessarily want to hang in my home. The stilted writing style, the obvious loose threads, the rushed feeling of the final episode; these may have been creative choices intended further the creators’ surrealist vision, but I don’t think they lent themselves to a satisfying show. Maybe satisfaction wasn’t the goal, but then I think that was a misstep.
Still, in the long run, it’s a valuable show and I’m glad it exists. If we can get more premium sites comfortable with giving free rein to do-it-all content creators then more of our favorites will have a shot at being picked up.
The OA is worth a watch. It’s weird, but it’s an interesting artistic experiment that, I think, helps the webseries community in ways that premium series typically do not. As I may have mentioned, it is available on Netflix. [cc]
By Kyle Price-Livingston