literature

The OA is the Best Show You Haven’t Seen


The OA is a Netflix original series by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. You may know Brit Marling from Another Earth.

This series has some of the most inventive and suspenseful storytelling I’ve seen. It is constantly original and surprising. It hooks you with question after question.

I’m not even sure I can tell you a genre or two for the series.

As usual, this series is really best experienced with no foreknowledge. But I also want to talk about what we can learn about storytelling from it.

So, I’ll organize this post in three sections.

  1. No Spoilers
  2. Minor Spoilers
  3. You May as Well Skip Watching It if You Read This Section

You can then jump to the bottom Overall Thoughts section to get a spoiler-free conclusion.

No Spoiler OA Review

So…I guess I’ll give you the premise based on the first five minutes.

It opens with vertical cell phone camera footage taken by a kid in a car of a girl running across a bridge of traffic and jumping off to her death.

Except, she wakes up in the hospital having miraculously survived. She says her name is “The OA.”

We cut to an older couple who receive a phone call. The person tells them to go to Youtube to watch this video.

The couple shows up at the hospital and claim to be her legal guardians, but they think her name is Prairie. There’s strange scarring on her back.

She has no memory of the people claiming to be her parents. The mother takes the girl’s hand and puts it on her face. The girl closes her eyes and says, “Mom.”

The father tells the nurse that she went missing seven years ago and was blind. She’s never seen them before.

Open Loops

I know what you’re thinking: why did you tell me all of episode one?

I didn’t! That all happens in the first five minutes, and the pacing is brilliant.

One highly effective way to hook someone with a story is to use something called an “open loop.” This is where the story forces the the reader/watcher to ask a question and then doesn’t answer it right away.

Some of the loops open and close right away:

  • Who is the girl?
  • Does she survive?
  • Who are the older people in relation to all this?

Other loops get left open:

  • Why does she think her name is the OA?
  • What is the scarring?
  • How did she get her sight back?

Part of the brilliance of the show is how it can always open new loops just as old ones close, and they get progressively more intense, confusing, and strange.

The Premise

I know it’s hard to believe, but this isn’t even the premise of the show yet. I won’t pass spoilers for the first episode.

A careful watcher will immediately realize some very strange things. Prairie (the OA) speaks cryptically with strange references. She has either gone crazy or something deeper is going on.

The interplay between these two ideas is a constant theme of the show. How much should we believe having no idea what happened in those seven years of absence?

In fact, it is strongly suggested that she has mental illness early on.

The OA puts out a call for five people who are “strong and flexible.” She needs help to “cross a border that’s hard to define.”

The people who are to become the main characters answer the call. They meet in an abandoned house every night, and she starts to tell them her life story.

This is the real open loop premise of Season 1. She needs these five people to learn something. They all want to cross some border.

But what is any of this?

Minor Spoilers OA Review

The above would be an excellent premise and execution of the premise on its own.

But things only get weirder as it goes on.

The story begins, “I was born in Russia in 1987.”

One of the characters laughs in disbelief. I imagine most people do, too. If you’re reading this without having watched it, this might seem an unwarranted reaction.

But here’s what someone watching notices. Prairie is a girl from the American Midwest with no accent or anything.

This is not how we expect the story to begin. We’re still not sure if it’s a delusion, a lie, or real.

Thus begins The OA. It’s one of the most chilling sequences to any TV I know of. The opening credits roll here—one hour in.

I think a lot of people don’t understand this choice, but it’s what this whole post has been about so far.

The opening premise isn’t established until this moment, and running the opening credits this far in underscores the point that the earlier open loops were only set up.

The Movements

Some loops start to close. We understand how she went blind. We learn that she gets abducted by a crazy man and kept in his basement with five other people who have had near-death experiences.

The crazy has just begun. He kills them over and over in an attempt to study NDEs.

But other loops open up. It becomes less clear why she needs the people she is telling the story to.

And then there’s the movements.

She starts teaching the group a set of weird dance moves. If the show didn’t take itself so seriously, it would come across as satire of avant-garde cinema.

One of the reasons it works so well is that it earnestly embraces these quirks.

Also, everything is layered in and planned from the start. The fact that it all makes sense eventually shows that this isn’t an exploratory exercise like Lost.

Every single detail comes back as important to resolving these initial mysteries.

The OA review show

You May as Well Skip Watching It if You Read This Section

Let’s talk about the ending of Season 1.

It ends with a school shooting. It comes out of nowhere.

A lot of people hate this ending for being so separate from the rest of the show. There’s no foreshadowing of it (yes, there is). Tonally, it doesn’t make sense.

But I think this choice is perfect. School shootings do come out of nowhere. They are shocking, and they violate any tonal consistency in the world around us.

It’s usually a cop out to justify an artistic choice by how closely it resembles the “real world.” Real-world spoken language makes terrible dialogue. The real world isn’t a story or art.

It works here, though, because it closes the longest open loop. The group’s purpose gets revealed.

I won’t talk about Season 2, but it satisfies any doubt you might have about the choices at the end of Season 1. The ending isn’t a random, undeserved payoff.

It’s the whole point.

Overall Thoughts (No Spoilers)

I’ve seen some comparisons of The OA to Stranger Things. Both are Netflix originals, and both have strange things going on.

But The OA embraces the mystery so much better. Stranger Things lost what made it good (the open loops concerning what was really going on) once we understood the upside-down. It didn’t open new loops to hook us again.

The OA does the opposite. Every time it has the option to come back to normalcy, it doubles down on the weird and goes deeper.

It’s like if Mulholland Drive and Synecdoche, NY had a mini-series baby.

Some creators have a knack for making astounding and groundbreaking art. That art tends to not have wide appeal.

Other creators land commercial success with their gripping stories but don’t dare to try anything experimental.

The OA manages to straddle both worlds. It’s weird and experimental but in a way that grips you and moves you.

The series is about the power of the human spirit to endure horrific situations. It’s about love and bravery and having the faith to believe in something more than yourself, even if it doesn’t make any sense in the moment.

Most importantly, it never forces any clear messages. It raises questions and then lets the watcher answer them.

This is the essence of great art.

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