I watched the Netflix series The OA. This had 2 seasons of 8 episodes, in 2016 and 2019 and was then cancelled although allegedly 3 more seasons of plot had been conceived.
The show starred and was part-written by Brit Marling. It has a lot in common with other works by Brit Marling. In Another Earth (2011) she played a brilliant young person at the centre of a strange epoch-making event that climaxed in meeting an alternative version of herself. In Sound Of My Voice (2011) she played a strange, mysterious young woman with the extraordinary claim to be a traveller from the future. In The East (2013) she played an investigative agent who infiltrated environmental groups on behalf of corporate intelligence, but decided to change teams as she got wise to what was going on.
The common thread in all these works is that Brit Marling gets to play a brilliantly gifted person of great importance to the world, and in The OA she goes the whole distance and makes herself pretty much the centre of the cosmos, or at least a senior source close to it. This idea is delivered in huge quantities of humourless MindBodySpirit kitsch philosophy which sits awkwardly with the attempts (at least in the earliest episodes) to site this in some sort of hard social realist version of a US midwest backwater town. The thuggish, cheating jocks and creeps, the ambitious nerd and the unhappy elderly teacher all get transformed into eager apostles of a Thought Leader who tells a fanciful tale and teaches them a weird set of physical exercises.
The story begins with the reappearance of blind Prairie Johnson, missing for 7 years and now suddenly found again, with her vision inexplicably restored. The opening moments are footage from a mobile phone when she was seen running through traffic on a bridge.
She is reunited with her old adoptive parents but doesn’t want to tell them or the FBI very much.
Instead she puts the word out that she needs 5 loyal followers to hear her story and receive her instructions. She finds them amongst the local riffraff, and so tells her tale.
Prairie Johnson was in fact originally Nina Azarova, daughter of a Russian oligarch (the details of daddy’s wealth are hurried over, all that Nina understands is that her family had many enemies). She was left blind as a result of nearly drowning when a bus full of oligarch-kids was attacked by bad guys; she had a Near Death Experience and realised she was an angelic being as well. Daddy decided she would be better off living in America, and she ended up adopted by an old couple. But she never forgot who she was and she was inspired by various intimations to run away to New York and try busking in a subway station. In this way she met evil-but-charming Science Guy Dr Hunter Percy who takes her away to his hideout in the countryside. He locks her in his basement glass dungeon with some other captives who have all suffered NDEs as well, and he wants to study how they react to being put through the experience again – he blanks their memory with drugs after each time.
During 7 years of this nonsense the gang slowly figure out how to stay lucid long enough to discover what’s going on and negotiate with Percy, whilst also trying and failing at various escape and/or murder plans. But at least Prairie gets her sight back when her captor has to knock her on the head. We also see Percy travel away from base, having a squabble with a rival Evil Science Guy who reckons he can sort out the whole business of Death & The Hereafter and all that with just a bit more lab work, and then he’ll be ready to publish – obviously he has to be killed. Our team themselves slowly start to figure out the strange dance moves that can apparently reverse fatal injuries, which are what Percy needs for his great objective: the transference of minds between parallel bodies in different timelines (called “dimensions” in this narrative).
Having convinced her gang that this is all true and honest, Prairie has a setback when one of them finds evidence that maybe it’s all a tale stitched together from source texts purchased off Amazon. This is not a bad twist to suggest, though it’s bizarre to suppose that she would need to get a copy of The Iliad just to add the detail that one of her fellow prisoners was called “Homer Roberts”.
The sceptical turn doesn’t last long as the first season climaxes with a school shooting in her home town. In a deeply silly moment, Priarie’s acolytes bamboozle the faceless killer with the assault rifle by doing their dance routine; this works until some dude tries to grab the guy – his gun goes off and hits Prairie, who was just by the window looking in on the canteen.
The 2019 half of the series makes a strong start in a completely different place: San Francisco, where private investigator Karim Washington has been asked to look for the missing daughter of a poor Vietnamese woman.
We learn later on that Karim used to be FBI and was heavily involved in entrapment operations that put lots of young Muslim-Americans in jail, and he feels he has to work a load off his conscience. At the same time he encounters plenty of barely-concealed racism from the local cops. Things fizz along pretty well and we’re soon in to an intriguing mystery about young software wunderkinder getting lured into trying to solve a weird game that leads them to a strange house that they get entranced by and trapped in. But then it’s time for Prairie to reappear – her soul has transferred over to this other dimension, and taken over the body of Nina Azarova. In this world, Nina never went blind but had a happily comfortable upbringing and is now in a relationship with an unscrupulous tech billionaire called Pierre Ruskin. This world is also one where Barack Obama is unknown (maybe he just never rose higher than the Senate) and Joe Biden is the US President; it’s also one where Stranger Things exists because a minor character makes a reference to “the Upside Down”.
As long as Karim is on the screen, series 2 is far better than the first one. Although the story is assembled from some unoriginal elements, which will turn up again in later shows like Archive 81 (houses with secret histories and pointlessly elaborate secret devices; games luring the innocent prey into a trap; tech dudes being lo-imagination superbaddies), it plays its cards quite well. It is true that the idea of precognitive dreaming was a minor sensation in the 1920s, but the actual source was in the writings of J.W.Dunne. It turns out that Percy and the other captives also transferred over to this dimension after Prairie/Nina was set free, and the bad guy is scheming to make further jumps around the multiverse as he’s been carrying out more experiments and refined the process.
As ever more excruciating verbiage is piled on, and the mechanical details of the world-hopping business just seems sillier and sillier, the show makes a wonderful swerve in its final few minutes, seeming to break its own artificiality a la Gangsters. This turn to metafiction was a pleasant surprise, as I was starting to wish for a story about weird events occurring around the set of a too-serious show about weird events. Unfortunately we seem to stay in-fiction as the turn is smothered in sentimentality and we are to understand that our heroine/villain have just jumped into a world in which their last world was represented as fictional. So that means that the “Brit” in this world is really the alter-ego of the luminous angelic figure who was literally floating about. Nothing is being parodied or deflated, this show is stoney-faced serious about itself even when utterly ludicrous, even when it has a way out to redeem itself with irony.
I suppose drastically re-editing it all down to just one set of 8 episodes could make something dazzling and barely-comprehensible in a Twin Peaks way. It shows just how much better Stranger Things is and how much it gains for its sense of fun and humour. In some ways the short superior version already exists: Sound Of My Voice. That already had the key elements of The OA: a cult assembled around an odd woman who believed she was from another dimension (future time rather than parallel time), manipulated by a morally suspect psychiatrist, and a sub-plot about weird hand-manoeuvres being a marker of the elect. That was also cut off at an ambiguous ending as various planned sequels couldn’t be made. The solution to that mystery is that the psychiatrist was tricking several different clients into believing a fantasy, which makes for a more interesting villain than some guy who keeps drowning them so he can record the gurgling of eternal spaces.