Abso-bloody bonkers. That’s probably the easiest way to describe Netflix drama The OA.
What’s more, Part II of this dimension-hopping interpretive dance story from creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij is even stranger than the first.
Initially, the plot sounds simple enough – well, simple for The OA. After being shot at the end of season one, Prairie Johnson (The OA/Original Angel played by Marling) wakes up in an alternate dimension, where she discovers she has had a completely different life as a Russian heiress.
Things soon get much, much weirder.
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How? Well, it’s impossible to say without stumbling into major spoiler territory. Just like season one, the viewer knows so little about The OA’s reality that each small twist completely alters the understanding of its universe. A huge part of the fun comes with fumbling in the dark until a light unexpectedly appears to illuminate a key plot point.
But the pay-off only works if you go in blind.
Rest assured, however, The OA Part II delivers even more ambitious visuals than those that defined the show’s first run (yes, that means sequences even bolder than Prairie chomping down on a bird in an interdimensional plane à la season one).
One standout moment in The OA’s second season, which also involves an unexpected animal, isn’t just stranger than any moment in the first season; it’s probably the weirdest thing you’ll see on screen this year.
By the mid-point of Part II, the hallucinogenic highs come in quick succession, leaving you fully intoxicated by the surrealist imagery delving into time distortions, dimensions and the nature of consciousness.
Even better, for the first time it really feels as though The OA’s stream of psychoactive visuals are moving towards a final destination. On occasion during the show’s first season it felt that some of the more surreal sequences, particularly those depicting Near Death Experiences, were a classic case of style over substance – an entertaining but ultimately pointless dream. However, in season two it doesn’t take long for the dots to be drawn in what is clearly a well thought out story.
This isn’t another Lost. There is method in The OA’s madness.
As Jason Isaacs, who reprises his role as troubled scientist Dr ‘Hap’ Hunter, recently told RadioTimes.com when discussing the show’s planned five season arc: “You’re clearly in the safe hands of people who have a puzzle, a labyrinth. [Marling and Batmanglij] have every piece in the jigsaw and they’re building it very carefully.”
Once again, Isaacs’ character is integral to the puzzle: Dr Hunter’s drive to unearth the truth by any means makes him the most interesting and multi-dimensional figure in The OA. Isaacs must take huge credit here for bringing believable depth to what is essentially a mad scientist.
There are also some brilliant new additions to the cast, most notably Kingsley Ben-Adir as Karim Washington, a private detective on the hunt for a missing girl. Although we know virtually nothing about his back story (at least in the six episodes available for preview), Washington is likeable enough to carry his own unconnected plotline – well, one which seems unconnected at first.
However, despite the highs of intriguing new characters and plotlines, The OA also delivers a huge and incredibly frustrating comedown.
Just when the main storylines of Prairie, Karim and Dr Hunter gain momentum, the action shifts to teacher BBA (Phyllis Smith from The US Office) and the school kids – Steve (Patrick Gibson), Jesse (Brendan Meyer), French (Brandon Perea) and Buck (Ian Alexander) – the so-called ‘disciples’ from season one. And they’re really not up to a lot.
While the other characters of season two pull the show into exciting new inter-dimensional, consciousness-hopping territory, BBA and the kids tether the show to its past, bringing the story to a standstill by mulling over the events of season one.
Worse still, we’re not given many reasons to care about them. It doesn’t help it’s been almost two and half years since we saw BBA and the gang on screen, but it can feel frustrating that these two-dimensional characters are given so much screen time – almost two hours out of the first six – when so much is happening elsewhere.
Steve, perhaps the most layered character of this group, doesn’t develop from the morally ambiguous angry teen we saw in season one. Instead, there’s an uncompelling storyline about one character’s loneliness, and another lengthy subplot concerning one of the teens enjoying a one-night stand.
These slow-burning storylines aren’t handled badly in themselves, but they feel out of place alongside a groundbreaking plot involving metaphysics and the secrets of the afterlife.
In fact, the chapters following the disciples are reminiscent of the seventh episode of Stranger Things 2 – the instalment that diverted viewers away from a Demodog attack and into a story of Eleven and a rogue band of psychics. But while this episode was criticised for killing the flow of the show, at least it still featured a compelling lead in Eleven.
The teens and BBA in The OA by contrast are missing their own mysterious psychic; Prairie is off on bigger adventures. Without her, all the time with the disciples seems purposeless – and extremely annoying.
Perhaps these characters will become significant to the main show at a later date – one fan theory in particular carries a lot of weight here – but it’s hard to see how the pay-off will be worth it.
Whatever part these characters have to play, here’s hoping it’s over soon. At the moment they’re the only barrier to The OA becoming truly transformative TV.
The OA Part II is released on Netflix on Friday 22nd March