Netflix's Mysterious The OA Is as Addictive as Stranger Things

2016 was one of television's most diverse years, but it took until the final two weeks of the year for television to deliver its most intriguing series: Netflix's secretive and mysterious The OA.

Up until Monday, The OA was practically a folk legend in the business, with research about the project turning up practically nothing since the series' very quiet announcement in 2015. And it appears that's exactly the way co-creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij -- the team that produced Sundance-favorite films The East and The Sound of My Voice -- wanted it, and Netflix, always looking for ways to innovate, were happy to comply.

It would seem Netflix is hoping for another Stranger Things phenomenon with The OA, and there's a strong possibility they'll get it. Stranger Things came out of nowhere to become one of the biggest hits of the year despite having little marketing push or big-name stars (Winona Ryder was the most well-known actress in that show, and she'd been largely quiet since a big '90s career), as word of mouth quickly spread from those who took a shot at it.

The OA, a gripping, gorgeous and addictive series about a woman who returns home after disappearing for more than seven years, is only the second show I've watched all year that I couldn't press "Play Episode 2" fast enough. The other show, of course, was Stranger Things. And just as I told others after diving into Stranger Things, the best way to go into the show is to know as little about it as possible and trust the show itself.

But I'll reluctantly tease as few details about it as I can, as the Stranger Things comparisons are both apt on the surface and, after a deeper look, off base. Both shows come in as relative unknowns. Marling -- who not only stars in The OA but also co-wrote the series -- had her biggest success with the indie film Another Earth, a heady and meditative science-fiction film whose themes and pace carry over to The OA. For the record, the cast also includes Jason Isaacs (Awake), Phyllis Smith (The Office), Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) and Emory Cohen, who will make you forget that he played Leo in Smash, but it's Marling who shines here. The new faces, particularly Patrick Gibson as a troubled teen and Brandon Perea as a high schooler with a bright future, are also fantastic.

Both The OA and Stranger Things also tackle science-fiction from a character level rather than relying on a premise to deliver the goods, something blockbuster sci-fi abandoned decades ago. Both also feature a cast of younger actors playing underdogs who are written extraordinarily well and give power to groups that usually don't get it. Both feature small towns, strong bonds between unlikely friends and unexplainable supernatural happenings.

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However the thing the shows have the most in common is their binge-ability. When Netflix introduced its model of dumping an entire season all at once to allow viewers to watch at their own pace, it was these kinds of shows the service had in mind. They're slowly unraveling mysteries ending episodes on humdingers that dare users to switch over to something else or go to bed. The "just one more" mentality wasn't an option here, it was a primal instinct; the way The OA's storytelling unfolds demands binging, and I finished it -- with limited time due to work and a toddler -- in three days.

But the comparisons stop there. Whereas Stranger Things was an escapist ode to '80s kiddie adventure films, The OA is a layered fantasy that's both dark and wondrous, asking questions that have puzzled philosophers and scholars for centuries. I have to be strong here and not reveal what those questions are -- again, it's a disservice to know too much before diving in -- but The OA's unique answers to those questions are dazzling and stick with you long after viewing. You're likely to finish a late-night The OA session staring at your ceiling in bed, pondering what you just watched and deciphering the metaphysical teases the show presented.

That's not all The OA is about, though. The character work is fantastic. Marling's Prairie Johnson returns to her adoptive parents after seven years missing and a considerable chunk of The OA deals with her recounting her story of what happened while she was gone. Her adjustment to being home and dealing with the media push that accompanies a story of human perseverance actually recalls the temperament of SundanceTV's critically lauded and slow-as-molasses Rectify, as do the tensions between family members trying to understand the changes that have happened to Prairie. And strong stories from an unexpected cast of side characters add realism to the show's ambitious otherworldly aspirations.

What The OA really comes down to is the tricky topic of belief and faith, and the series' best attribute is its ability to go beyond what's on the screen and test the faith of its viewers. There are leaps of logic and suspensions of belief that The OA asks us to take -- it spends some of its time hovering above its plot with abstract ideas that make little sense -- but because it explores so much of the unknown there are bound to be moments that seem so out there, so fantastical, that your faith in the series will waver.

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"I'm going to tell you my story from the beginning," Prairie says early in the series. "And there will come a point when you'll see why you're here." She continues, "But you'll have to pretend to trust me until you do." As you settle into The OA, you realize that isn't just dialogue, but an instruction manual for viewers to follow. And it's remarkable.

The OA repeatedly becomes a game between series and viewer, asking us to show faith in it and trust that it will lead somewhere satisfying. And with every moment that it seems to veer wildly off course comes a moment where faith is rewarded with spectacular moments that will make your heart burst. The final moments of Episode 5 -- probably the best episode of the first season -- was some of the most reaffirming television I've ever seen, not just for the show but for life itself. I've never really had this kind of a relationship with a series while watching it, but it's that experience that makes it well worth viewing.

This is all just my personal take, of course, and everyone will go on their own journey while watching The OA. Though we started with comparisons to Stranger Things, The OA is more accurately compared to HBO's The Leftovers, Rectify and Darren Aranofsky's The Fountain, each divisive in its reception and far from mainstream. The OA isn't at all cut and dry with its questions, answers and plot, something that carries all the way to the open-to-interpretation ending, and Marling's previous work is a reverse bell curve in its reception from viewers -- some love it and others despise it. I suspect we'll see something similar with The OA, with a rabid fan base that will eagerly await Season 2. With a little trust and faith, you'll be saved.

Season 1 of The OA premieres in its entirety on Netflix beginning Friday, Dec. 16.

This article originally appears on TV Guide.com.

Comments (31)
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Dec 22, 2016
I guess its not for all - but I agree with Tim. The series is based on a story being told within the story .. so inconsistencies (especially no characters appear to age over the years) are a clue to the nature of the story .. without giving a spoiler of the end. Its very clever - its about blind faith and charismatic leaders, and the type of people that follow them. Its not literal sci-fi like Stranger Things.
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Dec 21, 2016
in my eyes after this post Tim Surette has lost some of his high credibility. Or is he just trolling?

"The final moments of Episode 5 -- probably the best episode of the first season -- was some of the most reaffirming television I've ever seen, not just for the show but for life itself."

Are you kidding me Tim, are you???


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Dec 19, 2016
I was furious i binged this. Kept waiting for the revelation and forwarding .One of those shows that tries to be profound yet underneath is just so prosaic...please remove this from scifi more fantasy than scifi.
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Dec 19, 2016
After watching entire show I can agree. At first it was one of those shows that present something not-quite-our-reality and wink at you saying "hop on and figure out how this world is different, how it works and why it is interesting" but then it just piled on strangeness and was slow about explaining any of it. It tried to be clever with a twist that may not be a twist (or if it was a twist it was poorly handled with enough plot holes to make in near impossible) which instead of leaving you with "oh, that was clever" feeling it left you scrathing your head with "what did I just watch?" expression.

I thought at first it had potential and story is slow burner. But in the end it's just "meh"
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Dec 18, 2016
Watched 1st episode and thought it was okay. Then 4th episode of Man in High Castle became available and it was touch and go as to whether I would watch episode 2. Anyway, I did and by the end of the episode 2 I was hooked. The final episode was a let down. I found it weak, confusing and a bit muddled for something that had been quite enjoyable to watch.

The two main plot threads of present day and the past until this point had been good. The stronger of the two being the past. The transition from almost tying up the past to the present day events was badly handled. The ending if there is no series 2 isn't a satisfying finish. It felt like the show had collapsed somehow and the creators had run out ideas, cobbling together a finish. If there is a series 2 then I'm not sure how it's resurrected sufficiently well enough to interest me.

Oh well, back to The Man in the High Castle!
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Dec 20, 2016
Ewww.. The Man in the high Castle.Binge watched... but after like S01E06 I could not stand it any longer... only continued to see where the videos came from, what they were about, ... etc... what a disappointment...
Just saying... can't argue about taste...
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Dec 20, 2016
That's a shame, I enjoy it. Each to their own!
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Dec 18, 2016
If you have any free time it would be better spent following a spam-link from the comments about "how to make some extra cash this week", than watching The OA, come to the final episode, and realise that you will never get that time back.
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Dec 19, 2016
Man, that was exactly how I felt!
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Dec 18, 2016
Three episodes in and I'm not hooked on The OA yet, though I'll likely soldier through the rest.

Much more "binge-able", IMO, is 3% (that's the title), a dystopian drama series from Brazil, on Netflix. There's an English dub as default, but I prefer the native Portuguese with subtitles. YMMV. Either way, I enjoyed this sleeper of a series quite a lot.
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Dec 18, 2016
i must say I can't see the brilliance everybody sees. It's not a bad show as such, it's just that it's weird from the start and goes very slowly toward explaining that weirdnes. The point of backstory is interesting enough though certain movie in 1990s explored it better.

There are some massive plotholes as well. I guess I'll finish it but I'm not eagerly anticipating doing it.
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Dec 18, 2016
What 1990's movie?
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Dec 18, 2016
Since I don't know how to post hidden text for spoiler I'm posting a link. Don't click on it if you don't want to know what movie I'm talking about andd learn where stories match.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099582/

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Dec 18, 2016
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Dec 18, 2016
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Dec 17, 2016
I wondered ...I haven't been here in ages but I'm trying to watch The OA without falling into a total binge and just as I went out to make another pot of coffee I thought "I wonder if Surette is watching this amazing trip if he is it won't be up at tv com may as well drop by there and give him a bit of a wind up heheh"
I came by and there was an article on the OA on the front page by none other than Surette - well I guess this is yer xmas pressie Tim, they let you write about a non-celebrity, non-soap show.
Anyway one other thing - comparisons to stranger things do the OA a disservice because as well written & produced Stranger Things was, in the end it was pure soapie hollywood escapism -the OA is so much more- it's like one of the 200 page paperbacks by an obscure author that could occasionally be found on on the bottom shelf of yer local bookstore, when such things existed. "Heh 200 pages" u think "I'll knock that off after dinner the blurb on the back seems pretty interesting". One week later you've just hit the halfway point because as well as savouring every page, after reading a coupla paras you have to stop and think about what you have just read, turn it over in yer mind while examining it from every angle.
"Hmm time to slow down otherwise I'll have finished this delight in a week" of course you're not that lucky and what you wanted to take a week or in an ideal universe, forever, only takes about 3 days as you accelerate to the finish. As soon as the book is finished you are overwhelmed with regret there is no more to read, despite the amazing ending.
I, like some of the other commenters here have been assiduously following the career/work of Marling plus her collaborators Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill since Marling began her totally amazing volume and quality of output back in 2011.
Her work just gobsmacks me -that she wrote enough good scripts that she needed two directors to keep the product flowing was one of the 1st things that blew me away, but mostly it is the fact that Marling vids cannot be just watched they must be engaged with on a level which insists the viewer stops blithely observing and actually thinks, is what get me, a person who is dismissive of much female creativity because it seems to be overly concerned with minutiae.
That is certainly not the case with Brit Marling who takes on the really big stuff every time and does it in a way that is not didactic or pontificating, but moves quickly and dramatically by taking full advantage of her trust in viewers' ability to understand vid vocabulary.
IMO Brit Marling is a vid artist who will soon be compared to Quentin Tarantino for the way in which she has taken the form to the next level independent of the Hollywood pretenders and copycats..

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Dec 17, 2016
When someone is predicting that this show is the next Stranger Things then it automatically isn't. Stranger Things came out of nowhere. It was unanticipated.
It was without fanfare. It was a surprise hit.
OA is already being hyped... not a good comparison.
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Dec 18, 2016
Yes it's definitely a stupid comparison. They are only mentioned in the same sentence because of Netflix otherwise they are very different shows.
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Dec 17, 2016
Is "fantastic" character work and references to Rectify and The Fountain code for the characters don't talk they just go around "being dramatic" in silence for hours on end pretending to be profound?
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Dec 18, 2016
No. The characters are good, I don't know about fantastic though.
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Dec 17, 2016
Holy shit this show.
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Dec 17, 2016
Saw Another Earth at an advanced screening (William Mapother was there). It was crazy, so I am anticipating this one. But really, I will watch whatever Tim suggests. Best reviewer on this site
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Dec 17, 2016
The OA is absolutely astounding. Only on episode 3 and it's one of the most profound, inspirational, and moving series that I've come across. It is so unusual, with great acting, writing, and a sequence of events that plays out almost like a half-remembered dream.

I don't know where this influx of amazing shows (i.e. Stranger Things; etc.) has come from. I'm only glad that they've come.
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Dec 18, 2016
Netflix.
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Dec 16, 2016
Thanks, I'll add this to my list.
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Dec 16, 2016
Thanks for the heads up Tim.That's what this place used to be good at.It is very unusual that we have the internet with it's mind boggling amount of content yet there is not one single quality website dedicated to television.I find it puzzling.
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Dec 17, 2016
the key words being "used to be". yeah i'll never understand why CBS decided to destroy this site, but destroy it they have. hey jerlouvis - What a longgggg strange trip it's been - huh? ;)
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