Netflix's New Sci-Fi Show 'The OA' Is a Brain-Teasing Binge-Watch

The OA Netflix Show
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Netflix is having a Beyoncé moment. Ever since the singer's self-titled record appeared online with zero promotional fanfare at the end of 2013, other pop artists have attempted to mimic the record's zeitgeist-grabbing distribution method with varying results. It was inevitable that Hollywood would attempt to capture the same level of cultural buzz -- the accelerated rollout and title-swap of 10 Cloverfield Lane chased that feeling -- but Netflix's new eight-episode series The OA might be the closest TV has ever gotten to the "surprise drop" release strategy that's disrupted the music industry.

In many ways, the streaming platform was poised to pull off something like this: Faithful subscribers looking for a successor to this summer's sensation Stranger Things will eagerly devour new sci-fi dramas when they show up on the service. Unlike the Beyoncé record, there was some limited pre-drop hype for The OA -- a project from creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij was announced back in 2015, social media clues appeared last week, and a trailer popped up as well -- but the mid-December, year-end-list-disrupting timing of the release is similar.

Also like a surprise album, The OA is best experienced cold: Just turn it on and start bingeing. The less you know, the better. (The show plays with episode formats and delivers big twists with nail-biting, Breaking Bad-like glee.) But if you're the type of person who needs some convincing, here's what you need to know before you take the plunge on this chilly and thrilling holiday surprise.

What is The OA?

The OA begins with grainy video footage shot on a phone by a young girl in the backseat of a car stuck in traffic on a bridge. Suddenly, a blonde woman dressed in tatters appears in the frame and leaps from the bridge into the icy water below. It's a jarring image. If you've ever spent any time viewing violent or unsettling videos online, it will inspire familiar and disquieting questions. Who is that girl? How did she get there? Did she survive?

In the first few episodes, the show provides answers at its own occasionally odd pace. We soon learn that the young woman is Prairie Johnson (series co-creator and writer Marling) and that she disappeared years earlier. When her grief-stricken adoptive parents (Deadwood's Alice Krige and The Walking Dead's Scott Wilson) arrive at the hospital in St. Louis where she's being held, Prairie doesn't recognize them, but it's not because she has amnesia. "Seven years ago when she went missing, she was blind," says her father. And now she's using a new name: the OA.

In a meta way, the question "What is the OA?" is also one of the driving dramatic tensions of the series. As Prairie acclimates herself back to the barren suburban sprawl that she grew up in, she's quickly on the hunt for information, scrambling for a Wi-Fi password so she can begin Googling the name "Homer Roberts." Her mania will be familiar to anyone who spent weeks researching "Carcosa" and "the Yellow King" during True Detective's reign as the brain-teaser of the month. 

Through a slightly contrived series of events involving a local drug dealer named Steve (Patrick Gibson), she falls in with some local teenagers and a high school teacher played by The Office's Phyllis Smith. Soon she's leading them on late-night vision-quest-y flashback sessions in an abandoned house, where she explains her childhood as a blind Russian girl, her unconventional adoption, and how she ended up the lab rat of Jason Isaacs' death-obsessed doctor character. Like the similarly thorny Westworld, The OA occasionally confuses narrative density with profundity. But if you like untangling mythology, it's worth putting the work in.

The Oa Brit Marling Netflix
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Who made it?

For most Netflix users who stumble on The OA in the coming weeks, the creative team behind the series will be as mysterious as the unexplained scars on Prairie's back. But to independent film fans, Marling and her co-creator Zal Batmanglij, who directed every episode of the show, are a known force. In 2011 they made The Sound of My Voice, a drama about a magnetic cult leader played by Marling, and in 2013 they again collaborated on The East, a thriller centered around an underground anarchist collective. Combined, these indies have made less than $3 million at the box office. With its millions of subscribers, Netflix will likely be a huge signal boost for the pair.

That film festival pedigree is reflected in the show's visual choices: Batmanglij often keeps his camera tightly focused on Marling, leaving you as disoriented as the character. Despite some surface-level similarities, the show doesn't have the same Spielberg-worshipping '80s nostalgia glow as Stranger Things. With its off-kilter rhythms and wonky plotting, the show is more like the work of Sundance favorite Shane Carruth than of John Carpenter.

During the flashbacks exploring Prairie's captivity, the series resembles last year's Oscar-winning Room. Only instead of a cute kid, Marling is joined by fellow test subjects that include the captivating Emory Cohen from Brooklyn and, in a surprising casting choice, singer Sharon Van Etten. These sections allow Batmanglij to craft suspenseful sequences -- an underwater escape from a submerged van or a nail-biting assassination attempt by soup -- that rival anything you've seen in shows like The Shield or Lost. It's that intense.

The OA Brit Marling Netflix
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Why will you keep watching?

The OA's plotting is occasionally overcooked and ill-served by Batmanglij and Marling's formal ambitions. Episodes drag, characters disappear, and clunky exposition abounds. At times it can feel like a term paper written by two honor students trying to cram in all of their esoteric research -- Flatliners-like near-death-experiences, Russian political history, the dangers of medication, and the effects of the housing crisis on upper-middle-class communities all get skimmed over -- but the sense of possibility and ambition is infectious. This is a show that fearlessly (and sometimes foolishly) dives into the unknown.

That sense of abandon is reflected in Marling's performance, which will keep you watching even when the show dips into mystical mumbo-jumbo. With her expressive blue eyes and slightly removed demeanor, she projects vulnerability and intelligence in equal measure. Sometimes she's a scared child, pulling a blanket over her head to shut out the world. Sometimes she's a wise guru. ("You sound like one of the poetry kids," Steve tells her at one point. "You know, the ones who wrote poems about cutting themselves and shit.")

As the narrative becomes more complicated, it's up to Marling to anchor the big emotional reveals and cosmic twists she and Batmanglij have cooked up. It doesn't matter how strange things get. You can't look away from her. More than the market-savvy method of release, she's the biggest surprise of this electrifying show.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.