Unreliable narrators can be tiresome, particularly when some bright spark(s) decide to stretch the device over eight episodes of a TV show. With a Shutter Island or Life of Pi (or Usual Suspects) there’s an end in sight, and your mileage for their content may vary based on how satisfying/over-familiar/tiresome the “It was all a dream, possibly/definitely” conceit is. Too often, they come across as a cop-out on the part of the writer, sucking the audience into a shaggy dog story that professes to have a commanding subtext but is actually led by its “twist”; rote writing and structuring are disguised as revelation, and it becomes all about that. The ambiguity becomes the point, whereas before the story at least (may have) had a number of different ideas to boast; it wags the shaggy dog and is symptomatic of the writer, having put away childish things, being unable to embrace metaphor without calling it metaphor outright. So it is with The OA.
For its devisers, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, this approach may border on an obsession, not dissimilar to M Night Shyamalan’s fixation on third act plot twists, one that comes across as simultaneously superficial and patronising, as if there are lessons to be imparted that they – the ones who see – can convey, regarding susceptibility to others impressing their paradigms upon us, or simply our own inability, on a daily basis, to be sure of what we know to be true. Which makes it ironic that Marling, as one of those seemingly with a mission to instruct, casts herself as one with a mission to instruct, the cult leader with a fistful of devoted adherents.
I’m suspect my problems with The OA would be less pronounced had I not previously experienced their 2011 film Sound of My Voice; indeed, I initially resisted giving the series a look for that reason, as the premise gave me an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I quite liked Sound of My Voice, but its desire to withhold was only intriguing up to a point. As such, I felt like I knew what The OA was going to be going in, on the basis that they had a track record in being wilfully elusive and ambiguous (in Sound of My Voice, Marling plays a cult leader professing to hail from the future); essentially, they’re doing exactly the same thing here, with just enough uncertainty that you can get forty-plus pages of IMDB comments running the gamut from adoration, to indignation, to trying to pin down just what it’s all about (which is only worthwhile if you leave the show actually invested in what you’ve just watched, and which anyway is a hiding to nothing; this is not Lost, although some of its aspects are indebted to that show).
One of those comments reference “deepism” as a malady suffered by Marling and Batmanglij, a phrase I hadn’t come across before, but which does feel like it has some bearing on The OA. There’s an essential banality to their repeated “message”, regarding the fallacy of faith in an intangible force, of the portrait of those who are caught up in such beliefs as people with holes in lives; something missing, damaged, leading to a need to believe in something more than themselves (the rationalisation for anyone who embraces anything outré, that excludes them from being ascribed “normal” behaviour). This is less-than-profound-but-struts-that-way posturing is why the show has been garlanded with the kind of empty-headed applause The Slate gives – “The OA is less a story about a myth than it is a story of how myth is made, and our collective, almost primordial need to tell stories that bring us together, bind us, and give us meaning. The OA suggests the sublime exists not in some ethereal realm, but rather in the people around us”: now, that’s deepism.
Of course, Marling and Batmangli have succeeded in igniting exactly the impulse they attempt to critique in “followers” of the show. On one level, The OA feels like a rebuke of the Damon Lindelof school of storytelling, where exactly the type of mysteries he shows to be “real” through deliciously gripping twists and turns of plotting (the conclusions are something else, but you can’t have everything) are shown to be anything but. On another, the show is utilising exactly Lindelof’s approach to inflate nothing (or something very slim) into something – focussing on a different member of the Five each episode is the very technique that kept Lost moving through limited plot progression, and which hampered its first few seasons (but it’s worth emphasising that the series had a far more impressive grasp on character; most of those in The OA get short shrift).
So yes, The OA leaves it to you the viewer to decide if Prairie is telling the truth or spinning a yarn (one that she may believe), and as such the takeaway may be contrasting stimulation or ambivalence (or enragement). Marling actually went there and said “our interpretation is less important than the audience’s”. Yes, she said that. Ten out of ten for unbridled pseudishness. For me, it leads to a boy who cried wolf scenario. I’m unmoved by the prospect of a second season; they don’t need to bait that hook because I’m not swallowing (I’ll gladly eat humble pie if they turn the show into something tangibly gripping beyond its most evident theme, but I’d suggest that ship has sailed and, indeed, had no cargo in the first place).
Because, more than the manner in which it resolves itself (or doesn’t), I’m not hugely sold on the storytelling. There’s some very good acting in the show – Phyllis Smith, Alice Krige, Patrick Gibson, Emory Cohen – but Marling’s drippy moonbeam performance wears thin quickly. It’s a leap I never really made to believe the Five would willingly choose to go and listen to Prairie tell a tall story every night, most likely because of this, but maybe also because its insufficiently motivated, smacking of the kind of thing that only happens in a story, along with where it all leads, to the unwittingly hilarious conceit of foiling a high school gunman (a cheap device if ever there was one) through the power of interpretive dance. In fact, it’s all so unlikely, maybe this too is a tale told by an unreliable narrator.
Ah yes, the interpretative dance. A term I’m using principally because it’s instantly what I recognised it as, but also because Batmanglij objects to it so much, believing it rude to the art form; I’m a proud vulgarian, in that case. He expects more from “serious people”. Really? You need to get a grip, Zal. Such a response certainly explains why his creative projects are so earnestly po-faced. I know the climax is supposed to be powerfully stirring (again, the execution, right down to the surging, euphoric music, is very Lindelof), but if falls on its face, plunging headlong into the realm of farcical.
And that’s not mentioning other unlikely turns of plot, such as Hap leaving Prairie at the side of the road when he has no real idea what effect her loss will have on the experiment (of course, the answer, if it’s in her head, is that the narrative demands it, just like the answer, if it is in some respect true, is that the contrived convenience of the box full of books derives from Riz Ahmed planting them there for someone who goes looking under beds to find). And then there’s the fact that the show is desperately lacking a sense of humour that might soften the blow of its concerted self-importance.
The idea of researching NDEs as Hap does is so extravagantly Frankensteinian, it would likely have benefited from a less naturalistic telling, but as it is, the only part that really held sway was Jason Isaacs’ confrontation with a similarly mad professor-ish associate; Marling’s reductive analysis of the NDE experience (“They draw something that often exists in our unconscious mind and brings it to the surface”) suggests she isn’t really fascinated with the phenomenon per se, particularly since the whole thing is but a conceit (to enable “a reflection on trauma and recovery”, as Vulture puts it, and to which she readily agrees), meaning the aspects of the premise with the most potential become the most disappointing in execution. Give me Flatliners any day (well, probably not the forthcoming remake).
Oh, and I have no idea why The OA keeps getting compared to Stranger Things, other than that people had no frame of reference and both were made by Netflix. It may as well be compared to The Crown. After all, both are either made by people or feature characters with an unassailable sense of self-importance.