I’m loving the 8-10 episode format that’s all over Netflix these days. Stranger Things, Daredevil, A Series of Unfortunate Events…they’ve all been great. Long enough to get some real character development and satisfyingly patient storytelling, but not too long.

My most recent entrancement comes from The OA, a surprise, unmarketed addition to Netflix. While admittedly not for everyone, The OA dispenses some profound truths about the power of storytelling to immerse, inspire, and activate even the most troubled souls…and perhaps only the most troubled souls.

The OA is the story of a young woman, Prairie, who returns to her adoptive parents after years of being missing. When she left, she was blind, but her sight has miraculously returned. Her back bears strange scars, and she avoids human touch.

The question on everyone’s mind (including ours) is “what happened?”

The question on everyone’s mind (including ours) is “what happened?”

But instead of revealing her story to the people who truly care about her, Prairie finds a group of disillusioned teens and one of their teachers (beautifully and tragically played by Phyllis from The Office!), and convinces them to meet nightly in an unfinished home to hear chapters of her story and help her “get back”.

That’s as far as I’ll take the story. But as the episodes unfold, we find ourselves in the same frame of mind as Prairie’s five “followers”: we’re never quite sure if she’s telling the truth or just mentally ill, but we’re totally bought into the reality of her experience, and the greater purpose it starts to reveal.

Along the way, we learn more about each of the five “listeners”. Their stories unfold as sad, dull, and directionless, lost not only in their adolescence, but also in the dreariness and double standards of their parents. We root for them while also dreading what they’re likely to become as we see their families in action. Where Weeds mocked suburbia’s homogeneous sheen, The OA laments its lifeless underbelly.

The way Prairie begins her story is fantastic:

I want you to close your eyes. I want you to imagine everything I tell you as if you’re there yourself, as if you’re with me, as if you are me.

And it works. In this lifeless sea of dreams crushed too early, her story of pain and power and purpose resonates with our disillusioned listeners, and with us. They may question her up until the final frame, but they listen because life has given them nothing else to listen to. As a result, they respond as though her story was the only one they cared about. In helping Prairie, they help each other, and they help themselves.