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.
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.
"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.