The medium of dramatic television is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the modern world, less than a hundred years old yet with a saturated presence not only in almost every household but often in multiple rooms, and while that medium has been marked by periods of stagnation when it does evolve it has been a metamorphosis as it sheds off its previous body and steps anew into the limelight.
From the anthology series of the fifties and sixties to the strictly episodic series of the sixties and seventies where there would be little ongoing repercussion, allowing episodes to be sold into the syndicated markets of America where they would often be shown out of sequence, in the nineties and onwards the season “arc” became prevalent, acknowledging that viewers wanted a more engaging experience, a trade off between the loyalty rewarded by existing viewers and the increased difficulty of engaging new viewers, mitigated by the fact that for the first time full previous seasons of shows could be purchased relatively cheaply on DVD.
The next step was the “television novel;” where limited “event” mini-series had long been a part of the television firmament, at most they were broadcast over a series of weeknights, but it was the online streaming service Netflix who pioneered the single drop of a full season, bringing in a change in the way a show can be presented and consumed, stepping away from the trend of the unnatural overfilled pilot episode screaming for attention the broadcast networks are tied to.
Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, outsiders and mavericks of the film industry whose mesmerising work defies categorisation and analysis, prompting conversation rather than offering answers, the opening episode of The OA is almost a mission statement for how contrary to the conventional expectation mandated by shareholders and executives of limited ambition they intend to be.
Running to an hour and ten minutes and written by Marling and Batmanglij, previous collaborators on Sound of My Voice and The East, Homecoming is presented with the confidence that the audience will stay the course, that mysteries and contradictions can be proffered without any need to immediately divulge why things are the way they are, that like any good storyteller there is a rhythm and a pattern to events, understanding that the castle must be built before it is either inhabited or burnt down.
It opens with a clip uploaded the Internet, the link forwarded to elderly Nancy Johnson (Ghost Story‘s Alice Krige) who calls to her husband Abel (Exorcist III‘s Scott Wilson) to join her to confirm what she is thinking, that the young woman who was willing let herself fall from the bridge is their daughter Prairie, missing for seven years, three months and eleven days.
They rush to the hospital to be with her, but when they walk in they are strangers to her for she has never seen them; from before her adoption to the day she vanished, Prairie was blind, and it is only when she reaches out to touch Nancy’s face that she intuits who they are and they take her back to a home she knows but has never seen, certainly not with a media circus of newsman crowding her front door.
Advised by the doctors that they should keep a close watch on her, that her Internet use should be monitored, that doors should be left open, the girl who was Prairie now wishes to be called “the OA,” but she is unwilling to talk about the intricate patterns of scars which cover her back and shoulders or how her sight returned, and the police are asking the wrong questions. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” she explains to Nancy, “it’s that it would hurt me to hurt you.”
Instead she draws help from those around her, including the short-tempered neighbourhood drug dealer Steve Winchell (Neverland‘s Patrick Gibson) with whom she forms an uneasy alliance, interceding on his behalf to prevent his expulsion from high school, posing as his stepmother for a meeting with his teacher Betty Broderick-Allen (The Office‘s Phyllis Smith), Her first goal to gain covert Internet access, seeking information on specific individuals who have had near death experiences, then a ceremony which will require five strong and flexible people as she tells them not of the missing years but instead of her childhood in Russia.
Marling and Batmanglij know their strengths as writers and the interests of their audience, and there is much which echoes their previous work, Sound of My Voice focusing on a cult and its guru who claimed to have fallen through time from the future, The East a group of marginalised individuals dedicated to a purpose outside the mainstream of a society which had disenfranchised them, families whose values were alien to them, and like I Origins, Marling’s second collaboration with Another Earth‘s Mike Cahill, the power of eyes and perceptions is prominent.
Once again playing a lead role she has conceived and crafted over years of development, Marling is mesmerising, hiding beneath a blanket to focus herself after becoming accustomed to years without sight (“Being blind made me powerful and it made people underestimate me”) and is unafraid to offer an oblique character full of secrets who is not necessarily co-operative or likeable.
With a wealth of credits between them including Children of Dune and The Walking Dead, Krige and Wilson are effortless in their quiet performances, genuinely loving but not inflexible in their methods, while Gibson is quickly shown to be far more than the arrogant thug destined to underachieve that his parents and teachers believe him to be.
The first hour of Homecoming serving as a cold opening to the body of the story, the opening titles only rolling over the glorious winter scenery of Russia ten minutes before the episode ends, The OA has no interest in standard format and nor does it fit within a simple genre, the drama tinged with elements of fantasy and science fiction which will likely become more pronounced as it progresses, the OA already demonstrating hints of a power to heal wounded souls such as demonstrated by Ben Hawkins in the much-missed Carnivàle.
Whether the unfolding story will last the full eight episodes or justify that commitment is a question which must tempered by the knowledge that the creators have a history of inconclusive endings and expectation should be adjusted accordingly, but with clear indications that a central theme will be redemption and the lengths that people will go to in order to overcome what holds them back, there is little doubt that while it may at times be arduous The OA will ultimately be uplifting.
The full season of The OA is now available from Netflix