The OA: this sci-fi mystery dazzles if you push past its mumblecore moments

This meditative, pretentious tale of a missing girl is surprising and rewarding – just don’t expect Stranger Things 2

What is it? A sci-fi mystery about which you will definitely have an opinion.

Why you’ll love it: The problem with launching a show in secrecy is that you have no way to guide viewer response. This has been the case with The OA. The only thing that Netflix revealed about The OA prior to its release last week was its genre and, in a post-Stranger Things world, that is dangerous. Now, when you tell people that they are about to watch a sci-fi mystery show, they expect cute kids, easy nostalgia and references to films they already like.

The OA is not that show. Sure, it opens in a grabby enough manner – we see iPhone footage of a beautiful young woman hurling herself off a bridge, then learn that she has been missing for seven years. Then it seizes up for three-quarters of an hour. What starts as a hooky thriller devolves into a mumblecore indie about Brit Marling staring mournfully out of windows.

Needless to say, this has upset a lot of viewers. They wanted something as emptily calorific as Stranger Things, but they were handed Upstream Color. Had Netflix offered more information about The OA prior to its release – had the show been pitched as slow and meditative or included the word “arthouse” in the description – perhaps this backlash could have been avoided.

What this means is that those who actually like The OA have to bat a little harder for it. And, for better or worse, I count myself among that group. Even though The OA was not what I was expecting, it has stayed with me like few other shows I have seen this year.

Take the first episode. Once you realise that it is going to be more about mood than a propulsive quest for answers, you are able to retune your expectations and appreciate it for the meandering tone poem it is. If you stick it out – if you stick out only this one episode – you are rewarded in spades. When you think the episode is about to end, something extraordinary happens. Without giving too much away, the show lifts into the stratosphere. The whole show shifts completely: formally, chronologically, cinematically. Just at the point when you start to think about giving up on The OA, it whooshes into life in the most unexpected of ways. It is a truly dazzling moment.

And, there or thereabouts, that is where it stays. While slowly filling in the central mysteries from the opening episode, The OA flits between mumblecore domestic life and thrillingly ostentatious pretension. Two of the set pieces of the finale – two big, long moments that explain a lot of the series – are delivered via an extended piece of abstract choreography and discordant Johnny Greenwood-style viola music.

The OA is that sort of show. It is cryptic and impressionistic and it has a vision all of its own. The leaps it takes are so huge that you cannot doubt its confidence for a moment.

The OA will bewilder many who watch it. It is not, by any means, an easy watch. But those who get it will love it. It is strange and beautiful and, if you let it, it will stay with you.

Where: Netflix.

Length: Eight one-hour episodes.

Standout episode: The first. If you like it, you will love the rest of the series. If you feel otherwise, it might be smart to back out.

If you liked The OA, watch: Stranger Things (Netflix), Sense8 (Netflix).


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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