I blundered into Netflix original series The OA expecting your standard sci-fi fare: alien abductions, hulking metal space ships, sexualised female leads, maybe some kind of cheap alien language conjured by a sound technician with acting aspirations and a vocoder. I gathered this impression mainly from the title art—two huge, stylized letters against a starry night sky, a female figure made to look vulnerable and small under the arch of the ‘A’—and settled down to enjoy some ten-a-penny aliens, maybe a reliable interstellar landscape or two.
However, the first episode resisted any kind of generic surety and rejected the conventional scene-setting. Instead, with the scope of an epic and the quiet ambiguity of a certain milieu of art house film, we were rocketed through a series of disparate situations. Gritty realism, as a waiflike, seemingly homeless woman attempts suicide, is destabilized by the miraculous: blind when she went missing from her home town seven years ago, she is refound by her parents with her sight restored.
The episode then proceeds to take us from a seedy, teen drama sex scene, to sweeping shots of snowy Moscow, via the small town claustrophobia of suburban Michigan and the somewhat eerie behaviour of the protagonist’s overprotective parents. By the time the title sequence kicks in, we are an hour into the episode and any hope of categorisation is lost: the viewer is forced to surrender to the fact that the show’s creators, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, have embarked on one of the most ambitious, risky, and truly original, series of recent years.
In this, it stands out from the two juggernaut new series of 2016, HBO’s Westworld and Netflix’s Stranger Things. Both are defined by paying homage to the past: the former to the 1973 film of the same name, the latter to 1980s science fiction, particularly the work of Steven Spielberg. Both achieve what they set out to do—create easily-consumable, addictive, thrilling entertainment—with style, wit and unquestionable talent.
However, neither could ever be perceived as breaking new ground, airing new ideas, or asking new questions. The OA, however, manages to do all three, whilst simultaneously having a strong, complicated, and compelling female lead.
The new ground in question is that of NDEs (Near Death Experiences). The phenomenon, though it can be the subject of real scientific study, is often hijacked by those with a religious agenda to push, and is most commonly found in popular culture in the pulp fiction of Christian conversion stores. Titles like 90 Minutes in Heaven and Embraced by the Light, with bright white light on the front cover and vicars’ testimonies on the back, are the mainstream face of NDEs.
The OA, then, sets itself the task of taking this emotionally charged subject and transposing it into a darker and more mysterious register. Whether the show is fantasy, science fiction or something else entirely depends on your belief in the reality of NDEs, and in that of an afterlife.
Though its main agenda is definitely to entertain, it flirts with the thoughtfulness and complexity of an altogether different kind of art: one concerned with not only amusing the consumer, but maybe, just maybe, giving them something totally new to think about. Westworld may engage with the issues surrounding artificial intelligence, and Stranger Things toys with the idea of parallel universes, but The OA goes beyond this conventional sci-fi territory, and begins to map out a more original blueprint. By the end of the first series, however, only tentative steps have been made: we will have to wait till series two to see if The OA is really carving itself a new dimension.