On Friday, with barely any advance hype, Netflix released its latest original series, the sci-fi drama The OA, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and starring Marling as a formerly-blind woman who returns from a seven-years-long abduction with the ability to see and a complicated tale she spins for five impressionable followers.
I was not a fan, having found the pace too sluggish, and characters too thin, to justify a mystery-based structure where the payoff seemed ludicrous to me, when it was meant to be profound. Though I also acknowledged that some in the audience may be perfectly wired for what Marling and Batmanglij are attempting, as was born out by rave reviews from Vulture and The Daily Beast.
Since I didn’t want to spoil the show’s surprises in that initial review, here — for the benefit of both those who have already watched all eight episodes, and those who don’t want to but are curious to know what I keep alluding to as so silly — are full spoilers for The OA season 1 (plus a bit about The Leftovers season 2 finale).
Read on at your own peril.
Spoilers are coming up just as soon as I pose as your young stepmother…
So, ultimately, The OA is about the power of interpretive dance.
And how interpretive dance can be used to, among other things:
1) Cure ALS;
2) Raise the dead;
3) Foil a school shooter.
Obviously, Marling and Batmanglij are going for something deeper and more complicated than that, but this is how the show plays out: with Prairie and her friends (first her fellow captives in the basement of mad scientist Hap, then her followers from the local high school) performing intense, intricately choreographed flash mobs in high-pressure scenarios. They are meant to be powerful “movements” from the Great Beyond, given to Prairie and the others after Hap has spent years killing them and quickly bringing them back to life, and a way to prove Hap’s theories about a multiverse of parallel realities, but they ultimately look like this…
Occasionally resembling the choreography from “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”:
And, look: I’m a sucker for grand metaphysical gestures that try to tie the mundane quality of our world to the vastness of the next one. My favorite show of recent years is The Leftovers, whose second season built to a climax where (spoiler) our hero had to sing karaoke in order to escape the afterlife to get home to his family, and it reduces me to a puddle of goo every time I watch it. But there’s a playfulness to that show’s most spiritual material, and also an enormous investment in its characters, so that when the Simon and Garfunkel moment comes, it feels earned and true to everything that’s come before, where The OA is solemn and grim at every turn, and largely treats its characters as props for the elaborate mystery that Marling (both as writer and as Prairie) is weaving, which means it all depends on the payoff.
And the payoff is flash mobs.
The school shooter one in the finale is particularly galling, both because the idea comes out of nowhere — there have been no clue such an event might be coming, and we literally don’t know who the shooter is — and because the context is so emotionally charged from so many real-life tragedies that using it as a plot device in a show that’s not primarily about that subject becomes enormously distracting at best, in spectacularly poor taste at worst. And the contrast of terrified children cowering under cafeteria tables while Prairie’s five followers passionately go through their movements (Phyllis Smith finally getting to put her younger dancing experience to use in her acting career) is jaw-dropping, and not in a good way. There’s a moment late in the season where Prairie tells her parents what her new name means — “The Original Angel” — and her mother is so upset that she slaps her daughter across the face. This is obviously an extreme and unacceptable reaction, but as I watched the school shooting scene play out, I at least understood the level of indignation she felt.
Better to try a crazy idea and have it fail spectacularly than do something mediocre competently, but boy did this not work for me at all.
For those of you who watched it over the weekend, what did you think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org