The OA

4 out of 5

Created by: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij

covers season 1

We open up with some cell-phone captured intrigue: found footage-esque mystery for the YouTube generation.  I’m on guard. Then we go to some naked teen angst, bangin’ away with soft lighting and abs, and I’m already brushing this show off.

At the title credits, I see some names: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the freegan butcherers of sci-fi.  If that descriptor isn’t already a clear indication: ‘fuck this show,’ I’m thinking.

Alas, against all motherfucking better judgement, I kept watching.  Because – damn my eyes – though Another Earth and Sound of My Voice (I’ve yet to watch The East) were imperfect, ‘genre’ films that propped up thin ideas with philosophical underpinnings, the attempts felt honest, and realized in the open-ended way the creators intended, even though I felt like in both cases we get a kind of dangling carrot of Something More that’s a lie.  And then also the whispery portentializing of events and dialogue; the stuff said isn’t dumb, but it’s also not especially challenging, and for anyone who’s had a good sit down and think on their motivations or purpose, you’ve already moved past the stage of looking up at the stars with glazed over eyes (perhaps brought on by bad corn from your freegan dumpster dive) and spouting some prosey ‘what’s it all about’ questions.  Marling and Zal – though I’m certainly giving them shit about one aspect of their lifestyle – are a capable creative pair, presenting tonally consistent thinkpieces that mostly manage to not dip too deep into the wankster pool before drying off with a particularly effective moment or even some offhand humor.  In much shorter terms: You do indeed find yourself compelled to keep watching, and invested in the characters beyond initially shallow or cliched introductions.

But the danger is in thinking it’s going to add up to any clear answers, and the Marling / Zal duo’s desire to – mayhaps in keeping with their own personal spiritualism or logics – purposefully not provide those answers but just ask the questions means that to give their projects a thumbs up is to a-okay wishy washy film-making, trying to say a lot and very little at the same time.

So it seems… especially dangerous to apply this approach to a television series.  Because there’s no doubt that the concept and approach – this time meditations on storytelling, the power of belief, ensconced within the mysteries concerning a character calling herself The OA (Marling) – are absolutely the same as before, only that carrot gets dangled over the course of 8 hour-long episodes instead of 90 minutes.  Won’t that make the letdown even worse?

Possibly.

But I remain hopeful.  That the expanded runtime means that Brit and Zal feel they can actually unspool their thoughts at a preferred, natural pace; that they realize that winking at the viewer with plotful twists and turns has a different effect than doing the same in a movie; that acting as producers with some other writers shoring up various episodes means it won’t just amount to buffer between sparse philosophical musings.

But I also made a deal with myself while cursing the first episode, and yeah, this is a very mild spoiler: If it turned out to be the teacher who would join the group, I was back in.  It was, and I was.  The main pack of characters on which we focus already has some timely diversity built in, and subplots ready to fire, but the teacher – and the group’s acceptance of her – set the tone with a sort of goodwilled foot forward that undid some of the obnoxious indie missteps perpetrated beforehand.  And there are other missteps after, of course, as the show weaves its tale of The OA – a blind girl who went missing some years back and returns with her sight, and a tale to tell: inevitable hiccups that can be over-analyzed for meaning but might just be plotholes; questionable dialogue that no real person would be able to swallow; facile justifications for character motivations – these latter two things a common problem for ‘feeling over function’ stylists like Marling and Zal – but, I’ll go back to my positivity: Because we’re zoned into to the transcendant nature of storytelling itself, all the vagueness amd starry-eyed quoting actually works for the show instead of creating a divide in the intent.

In that sense I’d almost prefer they ended things where we are instead of fussing with it in season 2 explanations; I’ve never seen Brit and Zal actually answer their posed questions, so they might end up being horrible at it.  But lord knows I’ve been converted as a viewer, to be there – probably cursing the screen – if and when that followup happens.