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.
At the end of 2016, nothing would surprise me about what people decide to champion, but nor am I expecting The OA to become a cottage industry for the online fan theory and hot takes industry in the way that Stranger Things or Westworld did earlier this year. It’s weird, and slow, teasing and teasing its way to a payoff that is meant to seem profound and instead plays as utterly ludicrous and at times borders on offensive.
I won’t give away what’s happening, given that the show literally just premiered. Look for a spoiler-filled piece later this weekend, whether you watch or not. But the basics are that Prairie (Marling) returns from a prolonged disappearance to the home of her adoptive parents (Krige, Wilson), but now insists that her name is The OA, and that she has a special mission that she needs five recruits to help her complete. Somehow, she attracts the attention of four local high school boys — a bully (Patrick Gibson), a stoner (Brendan Meyer), a scholarship athlete (Brandon Perea), and a young trans man (Ian Alexander) — and one of their teachers (Smith) to be both her apprentices and her audience. After a sluggish introduction to the characters and the suburban Michigan setting, the bulk of season is a long campfire story, with Prairie gathering her acolytes in an abandoned house to spin the tale of where she vanished to for all those years, how she got her sight back (and, for that matter, how she lost it in the first place), and why she’s determined to track down the people she was with, including ex-jock Homer (Emory Cohen) and scientist Hap (Isaacs).
As a result of all she’s been through, Prairie barely knows or cares how to socialize anymore, and her followers occasionally find themselves asking if they are spending a lot of time in the company of someone who’s mentally ill, a pathological liar, or both. Yet they keep coming back to hear more. As one of them puts it, “It’s just, aren’t you curious how it ends?”
The early episodes of The OA are an enormous drag, struggling to figure out how to parcel out Prairie’s story, and how to keep things interesting until we get to the big information. (It’s also utterly humorless, which isn’t an inherent sin, but takes away yet another reason to sit through it; it’s almost startling when Prairie and her parents are smiling and joking in a later chapter, and of course the happiness is quickly crushed.) But this puts us in the same position as the group, waiting and waiting for the end of the story — which starts to lose so much steam by the end that one of the later episodes runs only 30 minutes — to have any sense of whether it was worth the time…
… and it’s laughable. And presented as deadly serious and profound.
I’m half-tempted to just spill it here, to spare the looky-lous from wanting to watch it all — or, since all the episodes are now available, to jump ahead to see what’s what. If you must know, the big things happen near the end of episode 5 and in the last 5-10 minutes of the finale, but it likely won’t mean as much — good or bad — without having sat through the whole rambling tale. And in a year full of new TV shows that seemed tuned to a frequency only a handful of viewers could truly hear and appreciate, some of you may be genuinely moved to tears of joy or sorrow at Prairie’s story and where it leads, so I can leave you to explore it unspoiled.
But after eight hours of head scratching and hope-watching, I came to realize that by far the most interesting thing about The OA is how Netflix is releasing it. Which is never a good sign for any piece of narrative storytelling.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org