Netflix releases so many new shows into the wilds of Peak TV that it can be easy to lose track of them. The other day, I was surprised to get an email from a reader asking about a new Netflix show (actually an Italian import) about the Medicis co-starring Richard Madden and Dustin Hoffman, because I wasn’t even aware it existed.
Still, Netflix PR usually puts its full weight behind the service’s original productions, which makes today’s premiere of The OA such an oddity. The series — a sci-fi mystery created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (The Sound of My Voice) and starring Marling as a formerly blind woman who resurfaces after a nine-year abduction, somehow able to see and with a hidden agenda — wasn’t exactly a secret, since the various industry trades wrote about it in early 2015. But Netflix never made a grand pronouncement about the show until dropping a trailer earlier this week, and while critics were given screeners of all eight episodes, reviews were embargoed until right now, when the first season went live for the public to see. It’s not Horace and Pete popping up out of the blue with an all-star cast, but it’s about as stealthy as a TV premiere can be from one of the more dominant forces in the marketplace.
So why go this route? One possibility is that Netflix thinks it has a brilliant show on its hands, but one that needs careful nurturing and a word-of-mouth campaign, rather than carpet-bombing the audience with reminders that The OA is coming. Another is that Netflix thinks the show is a disaster and is trying to minimize awareness and expectations without outright killing the thing, like when movie studios require critics to hold reviews until as close to the premiere as possible because they don’t want to hurt the pre-release buzz.
My guess, having endured all eight episodes of the thing, is a mixture of the two: The OA is an oddball little show, with no big names (its most recognizable actors are Jason Isaacs, Alice Krige, Scott Wilson from Walking Dead, and Phyllis Smith from The Office and Inside Out), a verrrrrry deliberate sense of pace (the “opening” credits arrive nearly an hour into the first chapter, almost like they’re mocking The Good Wife for maybe making it 10 or 15 minutes into an episode before doing the same), and a mythology that will be divisive at best when it’s all revealed. Whether Netflix loves it, hates it, or is simply confused by it, the only sensible approach is to start small and see if — as happened with the similarly weird, but ultimately entertaining enough, Sense8 — a cult audience forms around what Marling and Batmanglij have done.