Friday, December 16, 2016

So Open To Interpretation: The OA Season 1 Intrigues

The Good: Amazing performances, Engaging plot development, Some interesting characters
The Bad: What the hell?! Seriously, what the hell?! Some thinly-defined characters, Lack of concrete answers
The Basics: Intriguing and compelling, The OA Season 1 creates a mystery surrounding Prairie Johnson who gathers five people to tell the story of her missing years in captivity.

I have, by and large, avoided the whole genre of "missing person suddenly appears" television shows that have popped up within the last few years. I began The 4400 (Season 1 reviewed here!) some years ago, but since then, the prevalence of the shows built around characters who go missing for years and return seem to all be built around similar conceits; there is a mystery and there is usually a betrayal (most commonly in the form of a character in the local to which the character has been returned who knows exactly where the abducted person was). And the variables involved seem less audacious and more formulaic than most showrunners of such series's would like viewers to believe. Returned abductees has become a legitimate sub-genre within science fiction, horror, and mystery television shows.

And yet, Netflix managed to get me up at an obscenely early hour to watch The OA based only on the quality of its trailer. The first season of The OA is an intense mood piece that is just the right balance of unsettling and evocative. Despite having the trailer information in my mind's eye, I went into The OA with remarkably few expectations or ideas about what the show was about. But at its core, The OA (pronounced in the show "The O.A.") is a "returned person mystery." And, despite the spiritual aspect to The OA and references to "angels," the supernatural aspects in The OA seem mostly independent of any specific religion, which makes the season much more accessible than it appeared at a few key moments.

The OA opens with "The Homecoming," which starts with Prairie Johnson (the OA) being caught on a cell phone video running through traffic on a bridge and then jumping off. Prairie awakens a few days later in a hospital with severely bruised feet. The YouTube video of her jumping reaches her parents, Abel and Nancy, who bring her back home. Prairie's parents are astounded that their daughter - who was blind when she went missing - has been returned to them with sight. The police try to get answers as to where Prairie has been for the last seven years, three months and eleven days and Prairie insists she was cognizant the entire time. Prairie begins to become obsessed with getting onto the internet, so she can find a way to get in contact with "Homer," but her parents were advised by trauma services to monitor Prairie's internet usage. In her search for a connection, Prairie ends up at an abandoned house in the nearby housing development where she runs into Steve Winchell, a troubled boy who threatens her with his dog. Prairie shockingly subdues the dog and Steve brings her a router, kicking off an unlikely deal and relationship between the pair. Prairie impersonates Steve's step mother for a parent-teacher conference intended to keep Steve from being shipped off to military school. Prairie attempts to convince teacher Betty Broderick-Allen to devote herself to actually reforming Steve as opposed to giving up on him and shipping him off. In exchange, Prairie asks Steve for help: getting five people to come to the abandoned house, leaving their doors open, so she can begin the process of explaining who and what she has become.

In "New Colossus," Prairie continues her "circle" where she details her early life to the five people she brought together. She tells them how she had powerful dreams as a child and how she came to be adopted by Nancy and Abel. At twenty-one, she believed she had divined the message in her dreams; that her father was alive and wanted to meet her at the Statue Of Liberty, so she ran away. In New York City, she encounters Dr. Hunter Aloysius Percy, who is fascinated by near-death experiences. Entranced by his desire to study what she went through, she accompanies him back to his lab, which is incredibly remote and she discovers she is trapped and not alone.

The third episode is "Champion," which opens with a Chicago Tribune reporter trying to get Nancy to let her interview Prairie and work with her. Knowler encourages Prairie to tell her story for closure, but Prairie insists her story is just beginning and she does not want it to end. Prairie returns to telling her story of the early days of her captivity and the people she was in captivity with her: Homer, Steve, and Rachel. Homer is obsessed with getting a message out to the woman he got pregnant (which is how he was lured into Dr. Hap's trap) and after a botched attempt to kill Hap, Prairie manages to get the tools needed to get a message to the outside world. When their hope is literally washed away, the captives begin to talk and try to figure out how to stop the scientist.

"Away" opens with Prairie being returned to her captivity after her brief escape from Dr. Hap and the testing upon her begins in earnest. Prairie learns her true nature while dead and she returns to the experiment with her sight (though Dr. Hap is not aware she has regained her vision). While in the present, Betty recovers her dead brother's possessions, Prairie glosses over three years of her captivity as Homer made attempt after attempt to understand just what the experiment was by remaining conscious during it. As Dr. Hap tries to find proof of the "other side" after death, Prairie works to understand her nature as the O.A.

The fifth episode, "Paradise," opens with Dr. Hap hunting the fifth person who was foretold to Prairie in her dead state. In captivity, Scott begins to freak out more and Rachel is knocked out for the bulk of Hap's trip. When Homer is used to bring Renatta into the group, Hap turns his attention to Scott. Scott sells the group out and in the aftermath, Dr. Hap and the captives learn some critical information.

"Forking Paths" opens with an explicit purpose: the near death captives all have movements, specific dance-like motions that unlock powers. The group needs five movements and they have only four. The race for the fifth movement puts the captives in direct conflict with Dr. Hap, who has learned the four movements from the captives and is experimenting to try to find the fifth. In the present, Prairie gives her followers a mission; they are going to learn the five movements to open an interdimensional conduit to try to rescue the captives.

"Empire Of Light" finds the group practicing the movements. Steve returns home where he takes responsibility for his violent outburst against the chorus member. The FBI therapist encourages Prairie to actually spend time with her parents doing something. Before he can make proper amends, though, Steve's father has him shipped out to the military school. Betty witnesses him being taken away and attempts to pursue him while the Johnsons go out to dinner. There, a person takes a picture with Prairie, which upsets Nancy. When Betty's attempt to rescue Steve goes south, she makes an incredible sacrifice to save him.

The sense of momentum going into "Inner Self" is high and it opens with Dr. Hap being held at gunpoint by the local sheriff. To save himself and continue his experiments upon the captives, Hap promises the sheriff that Homer and Prairie can cure his wife's ALS. The ensuing conflict leads almost directly to Prairie leaving Hap's laboratory. But when Alfonso comes to believe something horrible about Prairie's story, everything appears to fall apart and put all five of Prairie's "disciples" in jeopardy.

Almost immediately, there is a mystic quality to show. While the initial camerawork in "The Homecoming" is choppy and troubling, The OA soon transitions into a series of beautiful shots and smooth transitions. The tone in the first season of The OA is consistently ominous and it keeps the viewer engaged the entire first season. In fact, what The OA does so effectively in its first season is make the viewer forget what they know must be true within the narrative in order to sell the big reversals near the end of the season. But, very early on, The OA establishes some independent facts separate from Prairie telling her story, most notably that Prairie was blind, but has returned to Crestwood with sight. That and the video she finds online force the viewer to accept some of what Prairie says as true, even when the narrative takes an abrupt right turn in the final episode.

While it is frustrating that The OA Season 1 does not immediately offer any clear answers to what is actually going on in the story, the narrative is engaging enough to want to go back to rewatch the season again. Not since watching the first season of Sense8 (reviewed here!) have I wanted to go right back and rewatch a season (and, as I write this I have it on again and am catching a number of clues as to what Prairie actually went through in her absent years). The OA Season 1 is well-directed and surprisingly well-conceived. There is something incredible about a show where the act of making a sandwich is gripping television.

The OA is led by the stories of Prairie and Steve. Prairie's narrative voice changes dramatically as the season progresses, but at the root of The OA are the characters. While the season is fairly well-populated, some of the characters - notably Jesse, Buck, Rachel and Scott - are incredibly poorly-defined. While characters like Betty, Nancy and Abel develop slowly, the eight-episode season of The OA neglects a number of the supporting characters who are only paid lip-service in the first season.

The essential characters in the first season of The OA are:

Prairie Johnson - The OA. She was born in Russia, as Nina, to an oligarch who taught her to overcome her fears. After a series of prophetic nightmares, she survives an assassination attempt . . . at the cost of her sight. She is adopted by the Johnsons and over seven years ago went missing rather abruptly. She influences Steve's dog, much to his surprise, which opens the door for them to begin a friendship and when she meets with Steve's teacher, she quickly divines how she has been hurt to get her to recommit to helping Steve as opposed to expelling him. She has premonitions in her dreams and, as a child, she believed her father was communicating with her through her dreams. She gathers five people to whom she tells the story of her captive years and in detailing her near-death experiences and what she went through in the study of those experiences, she begins to take control of her life and formulate a plan to save those she left behind,

Steve Winchell - A troubled seventeen year old, he is the practice lay for a girl for whom he has genuine feelings. He is a bully at school, but quickly begins to respect "crazy" Prairie. He has violent outbursts, including one where he bruises a chorus member's trachea just because he is jealous of his potential relationship with the girl he is screwing. To protect other members of the group, he has to stop dealing drugs out of the empty house. His attempts to reform might come too late, as his father is committed to shipping him off to a military boarding school. He completely invests in Prairie's story,

Betty Broderick-Allen - Duped by Prairie initially into actually caring about Steve and his fate, she joins Prairie's story circle after finding her video online. She recently lost her brother, but gets a windfall from his estate. She is passionate about learning Prairie's story and changing her life and she sees Prairie as a chance to do that,

Nancy Johnson - Prairie's adopted mother, she found Nina at Nina's aunt's whorehouse where they came to adopt (buy) a baby. She remained married to Abel through the entire time Prairie was missing. She is protective of Prairie, though she was also integral in having her medicated as a child. She has a secret related to Prairie's disappearance that has been eating at her,

Abel Johnson - Prairie's adopted father, he films Nina as she has powerful dreams at night and moves around her room, talking loudly. When Prairie comes home, he tries to give her the space to grow and be safe. He allows Prairie to go on the walks that enable her to meet with her group. He remains the most protective of Prairie, but also genuinely curious about what happened to her,

Homer Roberts - The survivor of a near-death experience, he is obsessed with being reunited with the son he never met (but learned of right before his abduction). He and Prairie develop a bond in captivity. Saving him is what Prairie is obsessed with,

and Dr. H.A.P. - The scientist who studies those who have near-death experiences, he has a secret facility where he brings those he abducts. He is shocked when Prairie does not stab him and instead makes him a sandwich. He has an almost supernatural hearing ability and he becomes committed to learning what those who have been dead experience while dead and what information they bring back with them. He video tapes his captives and he is determined to profit from the movements his captives are developing once he sees them resurrect Scott using them.

For the bulk of the first season of The OA, Prairie does not seem to connect with her adopted parents. The narrative joy of the season is that after an absence for the middle portion of the season, the parents pop back up in a powerful and relevant way. Which brings us to the acting. The transition back to the characters allows some of the more recognizable performers to finally illustrate their talents. For example, Alice Krige's performance in "Empire Of Light" finally allows her to break out. Krige is underused and neglected as Nancy for most of the season until her character reaches a breaking point and her reactions to Prairie allow Krige to plumb some real emotional depths.

Scott Wilson is wonderful as Abel when The OA bothers to use him. Phyllis Smith is consistent as Betty and it is impressive how quickly she becomes gripping to watch in portraying Betty's emotional journey through encountering the OA. Jason Isaacs is incredible as Dr. Hap. Hap might well be a character who needs the most fleshing out in season two (should Netflix produce it!), but Isaacs makes one of the smartest, most subtle and complicated villains on television in his portrayal of Hap. The moment of revelation when Scott confesses to Hap leads Isaacs to one of the season's greatest worldess performances.

There is, quite simply, not enough good things that can be said about the performance from Ellewillow Campagna. Campagna is the child actor who plays the young version of Nina and her portrayal of the Russian girl - especially after she returns to life blind - is astonishingly good. Campagna is amazing in The OA and her impact is so profound it is shocking she is only in two episodes of the season!

The OA Season 1 is led by writer/co-creator Brit Marling, who manages to make the act of a woman telling a story into gripping television. Marling will, no doubt, be nominated for a slew of acting awards (should relevant academies actually remember The OA come nominating time next year!) for her portrayal of Prairie Johnson. Prairie is a complicated role and allows Marling to play blind and sighted and she is quite good in all of the character's transitions.

The OA Season 1 is a short, smart season that ends at a logical and intriguing (albeit frustrating) point, but it develops astonishingly well. There are few first seasons that create so many questions and find the right balance between answering questions, frustrating the hell out of viewers and forcing viewers to restart the season to look for evidence to whatever viewpoint they have for their interpretation of what the hell is actually going on in the season. Regardless of what comes in the future of The OA, the first season is incredibly solid and intriguing and well worth watching!

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Flashpoint" - The Flash
"The Chicago Way" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"The Adventures Of Supergirl" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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