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Review: Here are three Netflix series you may have missed this year

Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson in the Netflix series "The OA."
Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson in the Netflix series “The OA.”
(JoJo Whilden/Netflix)

Russian oligarchy, suburban America and the not-so-sweet hereafter collide in “The OA” when a young blind woman goes missing, only to return some seven years later with her vision restored.

But what really happened to Prairie Johnson (played by the show’s co-creator Brit Marling) is the mystery that drives this eight-part original Netflix drama released in its entirety on Friday.

Prairie says she was kidnapped and used as a lab rat by a scientist obsessed with finding proof of life after death. In captivity, she talked to angels, traveled through dimensions and brought the dead to life — all while living underground in a Plexiglas cell with four other prisoners.

Whether her story is real or the byproduct of extreme trauma is one of many questions at the heart of this haunting, graceful and often frustratingly cryptic series.

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Yet an even bigger mystery surrounding “The OA” is why the streaming service chose to release it — and dozens more original series — with little promotion or fanfare.

In the last two months alone, Netflix has made available more series — some original, some partnerships or acquisitions — than HBO, Showtime and Amazon Prime combined, and done so with such stealth that you’d swear the streaming service was conducting its own experiment: Just how alert are you, dear audience?

“Fauda.” “Case.” “Tales by Light.” “Crazyhead.” “No Second Chance.” “White Rabbit Project.” “World of Winx.” All shows released since November that, on paper, may have well been the lineup at a heavy metal festival.

And that’s just a sampling of the dozens of series released since Netflix’s most recent crowning achievement this fall, “The Crown.”

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The prolific service has been experimenting with so many different formats — docs, dramas, comedies — that it appears even Netflix can’t even keep up with the deluge of content.

The streaming platform’s throw-it-all-against-the-wall approach has produced some of the best and most ambitious series this year — “The Crown,” “Stranger Things,” “Luke Cage.” But there are many more that have quietly been slipped under the tree at year’s end: some are treasures, others are white elephants.

Richard Madden and Annabel Scholey in a scene from the Netflix series "Medici: Masters of Florence."
Richard Madden and Annabel Scholey in a scene from the Netflix series “Medici: Masters of Florence.”
(Wild Bunch TV )

In that latter category is the 14th century drama “Medici: Masters of Florence,” which was released Dec. 9. The eight-part drama stars Dustin Hoffman — yes, you read that correctly — and Richard Madden (who played Robb Stark on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”).

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It follows the influential Medici family as it turns its small business into a banking empire that helps fund the Italian Renaissance.

As artful as the premise sounds, the story is too dense, wrought with too many players and edited in such a way that it often feels rushed and thrown together. The dialogue is in English, and almost all the characters here speak with British accents — except for Hoffman. His accent is a puzzling 20th century Brooklynese (perhaps he’s been time traveling with Prairie of “The OA”?), and every time he opens his mouth, 1390s Florence sounds more like 1950s New York.

It’s also near impossible to render banking sexy, no matter how many bodice-ripping scenes you throw at the problem — and there are many. Couple that with beautiful scenery. Creators Frank Spotnitz (“The Man in the High Castle”) and Nicholas Meyer (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”) deserve credit for at least trying to make the early world of loans and mortgages look pretty.

It’s also worth noting the irony of a tender moment between Cosimo de’ Medici (Madden) and his father-in-law to be Alessandro Bardi (David Bradley) since, on “Game of Thrones,” Bradley’s Walder Frey slaughtered Madden’s Robb Stark when he failed to marry his daughter.

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Is “Medici” good? No, but it’s been commissioned for another season. Unlike HBO’s star-powered “Vinyl,” which was cancelled after Season 1, “Medici” was not hyped months before its arrival. Perhaps the quiet release was a well-planned strategy?

Lesley Sharp as Lucy Cannonbury in the Netflix original series "Paranoid."
Lesley Sharp as Lucy Cannonbury in the Netflix original series “Paranoid.”
(Ben Blackall / Netflix )

More binge-worthy is the modern-day British/German detective series “Paranoid.” Released last month on Netflix and starring another “Thrones” star, Indira Varma, the eight-part series focuses on a group of small-town detectives who stumble on an international pharma conspiracy while investigating the murder of a local woman.

In classic British form a la “Happy Valley” (Netflix) or “Broadchurch” (BBC America), the characters’ back stories are often as disturbing as the crimes they investigate, and their fight for justice is as much about battling their own demons as it is about solving the brutal murder of a single mother on a playground.

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“Paranoid” isn’t as sophisticated as the aforementioned detective shows, thanks to the forced subplot of a budding romance between two of the investigators and the addition of a German policewoman who’s altogether too cheery for the world of bleak British crime productions.

The series, which originally aired on ITV, tackles the very topical issue of an over-medicated society, and what all that pill-popping has cost us in the long run.

“Paranoid” is worth pulling out of the pile to watch during your winter vacation downtime, but there’s lots of barren, winter scenery here, so have your anti-depressants handy.

The best in this sampling of late-year, below-the-radar releases also happens to be Netflix’s weirdest offering, “The OA.”

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Created by lead actress Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and backed by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment, among others, this metaphysical tale features OA’s (the name Prairie calls herself after her miraculous return) fantastical abduction story as told through a collection of surreal, dreamy flashbacks.

Her audience of unlikely listeners/friends — a small group of neighborhood teens and their high school teacher (Phyllis Smith) — serve as a grounding element in this otherwise supernatural narrative. While they become invested in OA’s narrative, her counselor, played by “The Night Of’s” Riz Ahmed, tries to make sense of it all via logical explanations.

Her story may or may not be true. Ultimately, it’s up to you decide.

It’s been reported that Netflix intentionally left the task of finding “The OA” among its billion other shows up to the viewer. Trailers for the show were vague, and were revealed barely in advance of its arrival last week. They were marketing a mystery with mystery.

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But in a crowded field, mining for great, good and even passable series appears to be the nature of the game at Netflix this holiday season. If only we possessed the patience and the power of OA to find them.

‘Medici: Masters of Florence’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time

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Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

‘The OA’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time

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Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

‘Paranoid’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time

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Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

On Twitter: @LorraineAli

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