What is The OA? Honestly, that's a question that you might still be asking, even after watching Netflix's newest creative outing. The story of The OA focuses on Prairie Johnson, who had been missing for seven years and then mysteriously shows up again with a mission of her own to complete.
Netflix dropped The OA on us all by surprise, without even so much as hinting that it was something that they had been working on. The trailer made it look a lot like their most recent success, Stranger Things, and it does certainly seem like its release was intended to capitalize on that popularity. But it is a very different show than Stranger Things: where its predecessor was a great character study with an unclear mythology behind it, The OA focuses much more on building the ruleset around its universe to the detriment of character development.
And that's a real shame because the characters in the series are definitely what stand out most. There are very light touches of some back story here and there, but for the most part, the series focuses heavily on Prairie and her attempt to complete her mission while also navigating "normal life" again. Through the course of the eight-episode series, she recounts her ordeal to a number of people, many of whom were also interesting on their own. We get small glimpses into these characters, tantalizing tastes of the backstory that probably exists, but never enough to satisfy.
Buck Vu, singing adorably
Chief among those characters is a transgender boy named Buck who goes to school with some of the other characters and whose parents are clearly not on board with his transition. While other characters get more background and development (such as it is), we never really get to see much about Buck or his life. And that's really a shame because the producers went out of their way to ensure that an actual trans actor was cast in the role of a trans character — not just another cisgender actor playing the part. This desire for authenticity is amazing and appreciated, but that much more disappointing that it wasn't developed furhter. Ian Alexander, the young man who plays Buck, is even a bit internet famous. Last year, he responded to a transphobic post that had spread quickly around social media. His story is a great one and definitely worth reading up on and I'm certain that he could've done more with this role if given the opportunity. That said, as he states on his own Tumblr, the character isn't solely defined by his trans-ness, which is refreshing.
The casting of Ian Alexander wasn't the only inspired choice here. The central character, Prairie, is portrayed by the woman who actually wrote and produced the series, Brit Marling. She brings a haunting disconnection and manic passion to Prairie that always leaves us questioning. Scott Wilson (oh hai, Hershel) and Alice Krige (oh hai, Borg Queen) show depth as her parents, who are both happy that she's home, but also still coping with the trauma of her going missing. Phyllis Smith, whom many may know from The Office, turns in a pitch-perfect performance as a lonely high school teacher suffering a loss that she still hasn't made peace with. Then there's Jason Isaacs — Lucius Malfoy, Commander Zhao, The Inquisitor himself — who shows you that character foils don't have to be one-note, but can express their motivations in such a nuanced manner that you almost forget whose side they're really on.
Trust him. He's a doctor.
The themes here are strong — acceptance, friendship, faith, belonging — and they certainly aren't subtle. The OA practically smashes us over the head with the urgency of its message, which gets a little metaphysical and touchy-feely. As much as I'm not inclined towards that sort of thing, I still found myself enraptured by the mystery of the plot, constantly trying to figure out what was going to happen next and what the endgame was. Some things were very predictable, some things were very close to deus ex machina, but somehow, I didn't care. The tapestry of this series is so tight and well-executed that it's almost immediately absorbing. The cinematography is gorgeous and haunting in its intimacy and the sound design is intensely executed. There's one moment that involves an iced-over lake and an egg that I won't spoil, but you should look out for it.
In the end, The OA asks a lot of big questions and — surprisingly — actually tries to answer them. It is simultaneously over-the-top and enthralling; sometimes you’ll want to roll your eyes and sometimes you won’t want to blink. The OA is so earnest in what it believes and what it is trying to convince you to believe, while also presenting a compelling and interesting mystery. It's one of those shows that you might have to sit with a bit after it's done.* The OA* is going to make you think and reflect, which isn't such a bad thing, considering all that 2016 has dropped on us. Some of it might seem trite, but the story of the The OA is still an interesting one to absorb.