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Death, Angels, and the Power of Netflix: The OA

Netflix has been on a very long roll. The company was there to facilitate the world’s transition to digital streaming, which made it into the gigantic media powerhouse that it is. But Netflix didn’t sit back on its haunches. Their decision to strike out into the production side of the industry was natural, but it’s the way they’ve gone about it that makes Netflix so remarkable.

They are very smart about which stories to tell (tapping into the uber-popular Marvel universe, alternative comedy and science fiction nostalgia) and also about who they hire to tell those stories. The latest in Netflix’s line of original series is a surprising and enthralling science fantasy tale called The OA.

Created by longtime collaborators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, The OA is an eight episode series about a young woman (played by Marling) who returns home after seven years missing. Stranger still: Her blindness has been cured. She eventually gathers around her an unlikely group of people who agree to listen to the story of her missing seven years.

The series plays out with the two parallel storylines unfolding at once: the cured young woman, who refers to herself as The OA, living her life back home with her traumatized parents, and each night telling another part of her story to her new companions.

The main strength of this show in this age of instant gratification, is the surprising amount of commitment to its relatively bonkers premise.

The show is based around the concept of near death experiences, or NDEs. It uses NDEs as a scientific entry point to a spiritual tale of death and rebirth.

Most shows approaching topics like this would obscure the truth, be vague about what was going on, or just not show much of the fantastical parts. The OA has absolutely no qualms about showing depictions of the afterlife, for example.

The first time that the main character “dies,” she’s a young child. Her visit to the afterlife is a totally stunning departure from the grounded nature of the show so far. And things just keep getting weirder.

One of the primary reasons that the show’s bold story decisions work is because of its bold stylistic choices. When the show goes to a radical new place, the visuals are equally surprising, from mirrored galaxies to never-ending wastelands.

There’s one main musical piece that anchors the show, one that The OA plays on her violin. It is simple but so evocative, and works almost every time they implement it.

This show also gets the rare distinction of having one of my favorite title drops in recent memory. The most amazingly audacious choices crop up early in the show, but they don’t stop coming entirely.

While Brit Marling is the show’s center point, the ensemble cast is also a highlight. Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines), Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter), and Phyllis Smith (The Office) are just some of the recognizable faces. Some young, new actors are great as well, including Ian Alexander and Brandon Perea. We learn a little about each of these characters’ histories, which fills out the show in a really nice way. Patrick Gibson’s character Steve is a real bright spot as well, teeming with rage and vulnerability.

The show also deserves praise for doing something that should be very simple: casting a transgender actor as a transgender character; Ian Alexander’s portrayal of Buck is sympathetic and warm.

Phyllis Smith’s teacher is a rare example of a genuinely complex older female character in the realm of fantasy and science fiction. All told, it’s a decently diverse cast, despite the complete lack of any black characters.

The OA is a show that approaches a remarkable assortment of topics: blindness, the afterlife, captivity, family, the Russian mob, fragile masculinity, inter-dimensional travel and interpretive dance are just some of them.

At eight episodes, it’s a quick watch, and it feels surprising and compelling all the way through. It’s not a perfect show by any means; you may be left with more questions than answers. But it’s worth the dive.

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