By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Part science fiction drawing off of new-age trauma therapy and part mystery/thriller, “The OA” debuted on Netflix on December 16 to generally high reviews. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling created the eight-episode-long show, which currently has received eight out of 10 stars on the International Movie Database (IMDB) and about four and a half out of five stars on Netflix.
Both reviewing websites call it “weird,” and with good reason. “The OA” follows the story of Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), a young blind woman who reappears after having disappeared seven years earlier. During the time that she was gone, she not only regained her sight but also acquired mysterious scars and refers to herself as “the OA.” Her adopted parents (Scott Wilson and Alice Krige) refuse to institutionalize her in a psychiatric ward, though they are torn about whether or not to medicate her when she begins to have terrifying dreams and sneak out of the house. Though the show starts off without many science fiction elements, as the OA tells her story to a group of local misfits, viewers learn about her capture and imprisonment by Hap (Jason Isaacs), a scientist studying near-death experiences, or NDE’s as he refers to them. Prairie and the other captives work through the trauma of their NDE’s and their imprisonment with a series of movements which they receive from “the other side” in order to gain access to another dimension and process some of their traumatic experiences.
Some of the characters are a bit predictable, following well-tread stereotypes: the mad scientist; the hysterical mother who from the beginning has noticeably done something she is ashamed of; the violent bully with a good heart (Patrick Gibson); the smart and hardworking kid who just got a college scholarship, despite dismal circumstances and taking care of his sick mother and siblings (Brandon Perea); and the quiet weed-smoking kid who just needs some understanding about the death and absence of his parents (Brendan Meyer). Some of the characters are a little less predictable and surprising, notably the uptight teacher who comes around earlier and therefore has more time to develop as a character struggling with her own loss (Phyllis Smith). The representation of a transgender teenager (Ian Alexander) also adds some much needed variety.
Fundamentally, the story deals with trauma, the importance of being able to tell one’s story and create a coherent narrative of one’s experiences in trauma recovery (and by extension, the importance of being believed), and the recent attention to bodily movement in trauma recovery. However, the travel between dimensions, the absurd movements, and the fact that “the OA” turns out to be an acronym for the “original angel” make the story feel contrived and more than a little ridiculous at times.
The show feels so ridiculous and removed from viewers in part due to the fact that many viewers may not have enough background knowledge about some of the recent work in trauma therapy from which the show is drawing. Movements such as somatic experiencing move away from the traditional psychotherapy and talk therapy with which most viewers will be familiar. Dr. Peter Levine pioneered some of the work in this area in his 1997 book “Waking The Tiger,” in which he explores the role of the body in trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the role of bodily movement in releasing and healing trauma. In “The OA,” the emphasis on the strange bodily movements and moving back and forth between dimensions, reflects this recent turn in trauma therapy. However, since this is a developing field in psychology, laymen viewers may not know about some of this work, making the show inaccessible and completely outside their realm of knowledge and experience.
Additionally, the show demonstrates some conflicting views on disability. Hap trusts Prairie more than the other captives because she is blind and this grants her some power, which troubles some of the existing narratives around blindness as an inherent lack of power. However, Prairie is portrayed as better and more powerful when she regains her vision, further perpetuating the idea that blindness is inherently a negative thing, instead of seeing it as a variation in human form and functioning. The questions about whether or not Prairie should be institutionalized or medicated further highlight some problematic socially constructed views about mental disabilities and the value of — and stigma around — things like medication. However, the show challenges some of the stereotypes around PTSD specifically, since the traumatized characters in the show commit the least violence.
Overall, “The OA” was not a complete swing and a miss. It was more of a swing and a clip. It was entertaining enough for me to finish the show, though I wasn’t so engrossed that I found myself rushing back to my computer either. It also seemed to tailor itself to a more specific audience with specific background knowledge, which I think could have alienated some viewers. While it challenged some stereotypes and problematic social views on physical and mental disabilities, it also engaged in some of those same stereotypes as well.
Final Grade: “C+”