- Spoiler alert! This article contains spoilers for seasons one and two of The OA, even though we don’t know what the hell it’s about
Why the hell is The OA so watchable? The narrative shifts and morphs faster than the opinions of a semi-cancelled celebrity, and it’s actually pretty annoying – smug, self-satisfied, like fringe theatre from your mate whose personality is best described as “likes Twin Peaks” – yet I can’t turn away. It’s properly addictive, even though I could barely tell you what it’s about.
Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (the latter, incidentally, is brother Rostam Batmanglij, formerly the brains behind Vampire Weekend), the show – now in its second season – goes something like this. Prairie (Marling), a blind woman who disappeared from small town America, come back seven years later with her sight miraculously restored (she went blind during a childhood near-death experience – so far, so Stephen King). The story that she tells her foster parents, though, is so ridiculous that even the viewer can only wonder if it’s true.
Prairie claims she was held captive in an underground bunker, along with a bunch of other people who have experienced near-death, by mad scientist HAP (Jason Isaacs), who wants to know where we go after we die. Probably into the The OA’s writing room, if we’ve been particularly bad, HAP. Anyway, after a series of improbable incidents, it turns out that if a bunch of people dance in a certain way, they unlock portal to alternate dimensions. Prairie, in the present day, explains this to a bunch of new pals she makes back in her small hometown.
Described like that, The OA sounds kind of straightforward, but it took a whole series to get there.
And then Prairie was fatally shot by a school shooter in the season finale, for no reason at all. That’s where season two picks up, but rather than simplify matters – hoo boy! – Batmanglij and Marling have piled on confusion. A San Francisco detective (Kingsley Ben-Adir) investigating a missing person case that leads to a mysterious app-based game and a spooky old house! Prairie travelling to another dimension where she ends up as a parallel version of herself held in a psychiatric ward! HAP returning as the head doctor of said psychiatric ward!
What the fuck? Normally I hate this kind elliptical, pseudo-mystical storytelling (a confession: Twin Peaks left me cold) because why should I bother keeping up with the narrative if you’re gonna keep moving the goal posts all the time? Oh, you’ve swapped bodies now, have you? Well done you! Asking an audience to invest in drama driven by dream logic – it’s a bit like asking sport fans to cheer on a game when no-one knows the rules (or, in my case, literally any games of sports at all, from football to – I dunno – quidditch?).
Somehow, though, The OA is not just watchable. No, it’s chain-yourself-to-the-sofa-like-Josef-Fritzl’s-in-charge-of-snacks watchable. It’s the kind of programme where the Netflix timer ticks at the end of an episode and, filled with dread and pre-emptive fatigue, you know you’ll be there until the dead of night, eyes drier than a night out with George Ezra, the working day as impending and inevitable as sexual conduct allegations against a ‘70s rocker.
Partly, I think, this is because, despite the ambiguity of the show’s sprawling, overarching narrative, each episode is remarkably tightly plotted. The three narrative threads that coalesce in season two are neatly self-contained and briskly relayed: Prairie’s new dilemma in hospital; her friends trying to find her in the small town (and dimension) that she left behind; and the weird detective drama that, for a few episodes at least, seems to have nothing to do with anything whatsoever – each uncovers questions in an expertly paced fashion, as though you’re kicking leaves away from a path to uncover directions that lie beneath.
This is coolly assured storytelling. It’s not convoluted and alienating as, say, Game Of Thrones, which you need a combination of pristine virginity and a PHD in Geekery to get through – rather, it’s impressive because its authors are clearly in absolute control of their narrative, revealing its workings when they see fit, either confident that you’ll stick with them or not actually arsed if you’re down for the ride at all. Whichever it is – that’s pretty cool.
With this in mind, it’s not even daunting that Marling and Batmanglij have planned five seasons of The OA. As Jason Isaacs recently told Radio Times: “You’re clearly in the safe hands of people who have a puzzle, a labyrinth. [They] have every piece in the jigsaw and they’re building it very carefully.” I couldn’t have said it better, HAP, you mad, pan-dimensional bastard.