It’s cold. The evening darkness lasts, encouraging me to hunker down with clever entertainment available without the usual buildup of a television premiere. And so I do. Over the last few weeks I consumed chapters of a new Netflix web series, The OA. Plus, Netflix offers audio description. I can’t say enough about this accessibility feature. The more services offer it, the greater audiences will grow. But enough about that. Back to the show.
The protagonist of The OA is a lady we meet as she wakes up disoriented in a hospital room, hypersensitive to touch. She can’t speak her name and there’s a push to identify her. Immediately, the documentary-styled scenes shot with washed out pastel color reminded me of the energy drain of emotional pain. Predictably, Concerned Family Members arrive bedside followed by the discharge home with an intense media swarm of our 24-hour news cycle. We learn our blonde, otherworldly heroine, Prairie Johnson, an upgraded Luna Lovegood for HP fans, lived with vision loss. Yep, she went blind. Her circumstances changed–for reasons I won’t spoil–and everyone wants to know why.
Including a character who is blind opens the series to criticism here on Adventures in Low Vision. You know I could nitpick stuff like how touching faces isn’t really a thing people with visual impairments do. We talk or use tactile signing. How about that time Prairie walks through a subway station, ferries over to Liberty Island, and disembarks near the Statue of Liberty. What on earth is she doing with her cane? Simply holding it in front and tapping occasionally is not much feedback in unfamiliar metro areas. Granted, if you were walking in a familiar place, you might minimize the sweep or tap of a white cane. Finally, I could rage against the flirtation with a notorious plot crutch: a miraculous recovery from blindness, but I won’t.
In contrast, I could complement elements that reflect Prairie’s blindness such as when she arrives home from the hospital she sinks her toes into the carpeting. A sense of recognition flashes across her face. Or how there’s screen reading software on her computer. Or the time when she’s in captivity and we see her cooking with heat, prepping ingredients with knives, and measuring liquids with level readers. This doesn’t come with further narrative explanation. We watch her doing things she is capable of carrying out. The audience will figure it out.
With the Oscars coming up, it reminds me how some viewers don’t like it when a person without vision loss portrays a character living with vision loss. In the context of acting, as long as people with disabilities are given a fair shake in auditions, I don’t mind. In this case, The OA was co-written by Brit Marling. She cast herself as the lead; it’s her right. She’s given interviews in USA Today and The New York Times and CBC’s Q about her efforts to spend time with and learn from a man living with vision loss in NYC. She seems to grasp the concept of adjusting to a new situation by learning alternative methods and awakening focus through all senses rather than indulging fear. This attitude flourished in The OA when I heard Prairie say to another character:
“Maybe you should close your eyes more often. Being blind is powerful. It makes you listen. And people underestimate you.”
Sure, blindness is a part of this story, but there’s more going on here. A series stands on its storytelling. The OA features perspectives from people Prairie hangs out with in the midnight Breakfast Club of misfits. It’s a trajectory of stories spiraling to other stories, testing your beliefs. It’s kinda hard to follow. I would anticipate where a chapter was headed, and instead it pans to a new angle, possibly never to return where it left off. After each episode, I sat on the couch my snack bowl empty, my mind blown apart. I needed a break. I felt exhausted. I’m interested in the strange, metaphysical story, but I’m weighed down by episode revelations. It’s unnerving, yet compelling.
With a few episodes left to watch, I don’t know the ending of The OA. From online posts and chats with friends, I gathered viewers hold passionate opinions. With plenty of winter nights ahead of me, I will finish the series. At this point, perhaps all I can say about The OA is: are you along for the mysterious, transcendent ride, too?
What do you think of The OA? Are you a committed Netflix subscriber? Do you like trying to solve the puzzle of a mystery in books or TV programs or movies? Tell me about it.