What to expect from Netflix’s frustratingly mysterious series The OA

Spoiler-free review: the new Brit Marling and Jason Isaacs drama is a strange – and not always successful – venture into experimental storytelling

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“You’ve got no idea what the show is about until you’ve watched four episodes. Not a clue.” As one of its leading actors Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter) attests, The OA is not an easy show to get your teeth into.

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It’s a drama that resists synopsis, shuns current boxset conventions and slowly unfolds its story while pulling it away from you at the same time. And, for better or worse, The OA is simply unlike anything on TV at the moment.

So, what is it all about? Well, thanks to its meandering plotline from the minds of indie filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, it’s a show – sorry, “singular experience”, as Netflix calls it – not easy to talk about without hitting a spoiler. But here’s an idea: “What you think it’s about is a woman [Brit Marling] who turns up after having been abducted for seven years,” says Isaacs. “She was blind when she left and now she’s got her sight back.”

And that pretty much covers the first 10 minutes. Yup, just 10. And the rest of the first episode? It’s a prelude, a deliberate “piece of misdirection,” claims Isaacs. A misdirection, to be precise, that lasts for an hour and eleven minutes, none of which feature Isaacs’ central character.

In fact, the main subject of the show reveals itself so slowly that there’s hardly anything you can say about it without ruining hours of viewing time. Simply saying what the title means could potentially wipe off seven hours off the slate.

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Brit Marling (right) as Prairie Johnson

Bold or incredibly frustrating (we’ll take the latter), this narrative trolling is all part of what The OA is supposed to stand for. It’s designed to be, as Netflix completely unpretentiously calls it, “an odyssey in eight chapters” that “upends notions about what long-format stories can be”.

Doubtlessly, it’s an intriguing sell, but The OA’s creative risks are hardly revolutionary. The bulk of the episodes – sorry, “chapters” – are framed through Marling’s character, Prairie Johnson, as she tells the story of her seven-year disappearance to a group of outcast teens (and one teacher).

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Sometimes we learn more about Prairie’s backstory. Sometimes the teens’. Other times both at once. It’s not a narrative structure that will up-end dramas as we know them.

However, what is new about The OA is the sheer lack of signposting in its plot, a technique that throws out the simple frameworks that most other mystery dramas rely on.

Take HBO’s Westworld. Its narrative progresses with questions such as “who is the man in black?” or “what is the maze?”, questions the audience can ask because they confidently feel the man in black is real, or that a maze exists.

But nothing is certain in the early episodes of The OA. There are no footholds. The characters and themes change so rapidly that when the credits roll it’s difficult to conjure up any question apart from, “What on earth is going on?”

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Luckily, this doesn’t run to the core of The OA. At the halfway point its sprawling plotlines boil down to edible and downright delicious subject matter: NDEs (only Google that if you want to spoil it for yourself), a fascinating topic that delves into the boundaries of physics and philosophy, as well as inviting some of the most ambitious visuals ever seen from a Netflix original.

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Unfortunately, it’s a topic explored through a host of underdeveloped and uncharismatic characters too shaky to provide a steady platform for some of the show’s biggest questions. Stranger Things, it ain’t.

Fortunately, there is an entity that saves them: Jason Issacs. His warm father-like performance as an experimental scientist is the beating moral heart of the show and his dark secret – yup, we can’t give that away either – provides some of the most interesting ethical dilemmas on screen.

It’s his memorising performance in later episodes that shines a light on the most important question of The OA: is it worth watching? Answer: if you’re willing to dedicate over four hours before knowing what you’re dealing with, then yes. But only just.

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The OA is now available on Netflix