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After the summer of Stranger Things comes the winter of strangely familiar things. A motley squad of small-town schoolchildren; an enigmatic heroine who appears out of nowhere into their midst; a journey into the supernatural punctuated by several unexplained nosebleeds. Haven’t we seen this before?
On paper, it almost looked as though Netflix had given the internet the Christmas present it had been crying out for: another season of the sci-fi hit that earlier this year made overnight stars of the kids at its centre and overnight kids of its grown-up audience. But when The OA debuted last Friday — in a surprise music-industry-style “drop” release — it turned out that, in fact, it hadn’t. The surreal new sci-fi series is one of the most original Netflix “originals” yet — a spectacular experiment that toys as nerve-janglingly with our faith in its narrative acrobatics as it does with the lives of its subjects.
Brit Marling, who also co-created the series, is the “OA” of the title (the meaning of the two letters goes unaddressed for much of the season), a streaming-era Laura Palmer who vanishes from a Twin Peaks sort of US town only to return to it without explanation — and having regained her long-lost power of sight — seven years later. (To offer any further details of the plot would be to diminish the experience of watching it unfold; the intricate and multi-layered storyline is, in the retelling, essentially one long spoiler.)
We first glimpse the elusive OA in the show’s opening seconds: a pale, pixelated streak caught through the quivering lens of a phone camera, dashing across a busy highway as if trying to slip out of shot. And indeed the rest of the series is spent trying to bring her into focus. As she gradually recounts the events of her absence to a group of baffled local kids, we are led along a great narrative ellipse that loops repeatedly back in time, episode by episode, to illuminate a rich and disturbing picture of the present.
If Stranger Things was an exercise in nostalgia, a warm quilt stitched together from fragments of 1980s cinema, The OA is a leap forward. Marling and her co-creator Zal Batmanglij have drawn on their background in indie films to embark on a brave and at times unwieldy venture, applying a quiet interiority to the small-screen thriller to create a show that is as emotionally rich as it is binge-watchable.
Though it occasionally loses its grip on its lofty material (brace yourself for the religious references), and skids a little in its narrative chicanes, The OA is quite something to behold: a strange and strangely beautiful thing.
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