After a week of odd promotional tweets, videos and a puzzling Instagram account full of riddles, Netflix’s new show, The OA, debuted.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The OA.]
The show is about one woman, the “Original Angel,” who is recounting her time held in captivity by a crazed scientist to a group of local high school teenage boys and their teacher. She’s trying to remember her adoptive family while decoding the world around her. The series takes place in two different time periods: the current day, which features the 28-year-old angel — who also goes by Prairie Johnson — and the seven years she spent in captivity.
The main thesis of the show, however, is about the importance of questioning. In each episode, the boys question what the OA is saying, researching different parts of her story to see if it adds up. It’s a show that suffers from some pretty fatal flaws, including a finale that’s full of egregious errors, but in many ways feels like a perfect fit for Netflix. Although Netflix has become home to some of the most praised television series, including Orange is the New Black, BoJack Horseman and House of Cards, there’s still a place for the offbeat shows.
The OA is proof that Netflix still wants to be the go-to place for misfit series that other networks don’t want.
Earlier this month, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said that its series, Stranger Things, was passed on by 19 other networks before the streaming service picked it up. Since then, it has become one of the company’s most prolific and successful shows, according to Netflix, with a second season already in pre-production. Like Stranger Things, The OA is en-route to getting picked up for a second season. While it may not be as successful as Stranger Things — a facet that’s hard to judge because Netflix doesn’t release numbers on shows — it has already garnered a fan base, been talked about by multiple outlets and in many ways, has become what Netflix wanted it to be.
During a press tour this summer, Sarandos said that Netflix didn’t want to go with the shows that the company knew would do well. Or, more specifically, Netflix wanted to branch out and test the waters to see what types of series audiences would respond to. Shows that networks like ABC, NBC, Fox, Showtime and, to a certain extent, HBO wouldn’t touch.
“There are too many mediocre safe shows on television,” Sarandos said. “We vote to keep the bar high and keep them coming.”
The OA has received divided reviews, with some heralding the artsy, philosophical nature of the show as the new Stranger Things. But for all of its flaws, the one aspect of the show that’s difficult to criticize is its unoriginality and weirdness. It’s a series that will spark conversation — even if viewers agree that it’s not a good show — and that’s what Netflix is most interested in. Unlike HBO, which has Game of Thrones, or networks like ABC and NBC that are entirely reliant on ratings, Netflix doesn’t have to worry about the cost of a series as much.
“Relative to what it costs, does it get an audience,” Sarandos said when asked about the criteria that determines whether a series gets a second season. “We always want to take some time to be thoughtful about the [renewal] process.”
It’s hard to determine whether The OA will have an audience as large as Stranger Things, but there is quite a bit of chatter surrounding the first season, which only launched on Dec. 16. Heading into the holiday season, it’s a perfect time for people to binge and talk to friends, family and loved ones about what they’re watching. If there was ever a time for people to discover the show, it was now.
The question that remains is whether The OA is too weird for Netflix’s subscriber base. After finishing the series, I immediately wanted to talk about it, and messaged a couple of fellow critics who had seen it to get their thoughts. Most of us agreed that we weren’t fans, but we couldn’t stop talking about it. Creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij managed to get an actual conversation about religion, philosophy and our beliefs of the supernatural into an adequate eight-part series. The weirdness worked to the show’s advantage, and the biggest takeaway we all had was that it felt like a Netflix show.
This wasn’t a show that could have worked on a major network, and to some extent, probably wouldn’t have found an audience on streaming platforms like Amazon and Hulu. Hulu’s off-beat television series haven’t managed to capture an audience the same way that Netflix has, and Amazon is still clearly trying to be the premium cable network for an online, streaming audience. The OA could only have existed on Netflix, and because of that, it remains a part of the misfit family that the service was created to foster.
The OA isn’t a particularly memorable show in terms of quality, but it is certainly unforgettable in its absurd strangeness. It’s not going to win an Emmy, but it feels like the type of series that will develop a cult like following around it. It may not be Netflix’s next biggest show, but it feels very unlikely that it won’t get a second season.
The OA is confusing, far too ambitious and almost annoying in its demanding of your attention as a viewer, and Netflix is very aware of it all.
The OA is streaming on Netflix right now.