Tabula Rasa, Netflix's latest exciting international acquisition, has a familiar recipe. The Flemish import has it all: a missing woman, a psychiatric ward, a spooky house, an obsession with numbers and maze-like patterns, and a single recurring special effect. In the case of Tabula Rasa, this special effect is the appearance of red dust — what looks like chilli powder — in places where it shouldn't be.
"Welcome to the nuthouse," one character tells Annemie D'Haeze (Veerle Baetens) in the opening minutes of the show. The same character, a fellow patient named Vronsky (Peter Van De Begin), later quotes Marilyn Monroe and Morticia Addams. Tabula Rasa is keenly aware of its forebears.
Annemie, who goes by Mie, has retrograde amnesia courtesy of a car accident that happened just a few days before the show starts. She can remember everything that happened before the accident, but she has difficulty retaining any new information. Her perspective, then, is always a little questionable. She's also the lead witness in a missing persons case. She's the last person to have been seen with Thomas de Geest — although, interestingly, she doesn't remember him at all.
Which brings us to The OA, Netflix's somewhat inscrutable series that dropped in December of 2016. The OA centred on a blind woman named Prairie (Brit Marling) who disappears for seven years. She returns with the ability to see. And, she gives herself a new name: the "OA," which stands for "original angel." She also seemingly has the power to heal. As her parents (played by Scott Wilson and Alice Krige) struggle to understand what happened to their daughter, Prairie's story unfolds: She was trapped in the home of a mad scientist who would repeatedly bring the subjects of his experiments to the brink of death. But also, Prairie was trapped in a man's basement for seven years. Her parents and her therapist (played by Riz Ahmed) surmise her fantastical story is the result of trauma.
Annemie doesn't have the same self-righteousness as Prairie/The OA, but she is just as unreliable. Both Prairie and Annemie are recovering from trauma and, as a result, cannot be trusted. Everything the viewer sees from Mie's perspective is suspect. She can't remember anything, remember? At the same time, Mie is struggling to escape the scrutiny of the people who knew her pre-accident, something Prairie grapples with as well — despite all the attention, they're both alone in their recovery.
Mie's story unfolds via flashbacks, revealing how the accident happened. The big, creaky house shows up, as well as Thomas de Geest, the man whose disappearance is connected to Mie. All the while, though, the show reminds us that Mie cannot be trusted. Her memory is suspect and, as the police inspector reveals, her recall gets worse the more stressed she becomes. So, as the story becomes more involved and more fraught, the less we can trust our narrator.
Prairie's story fell apart similarly. The final episode of The OA revealed that her story — the flashbacks she'd been recounting for a ragtag group of high schoolers — closely aligned with a series of books she kept in her bedroom, e.g. Homer's Iliad. (One the main characters featured in her flashbacks is a man named Homer, played by Emory Cohen.) Even up to the very end, Prairie is a useless narrator. But, at the same time, given her trauma and the way she's been treated, you feel inclined to trust her, as you do with Mie, who's always on the brink of unravelling.
That said, Tabula Rasa is playing with tropes in ways The OA did not. The OA, much like Prairie, presented itself as wholly new and therefore brilliant. Tabula Rasa is frustrated with tropes, much like Mie is exasperated by her own devolution. The characters slyly poke at the tropes — in the pilot, when Mie is shown moving into her grandparents' old house, she jokes with her daughter that there's a "big ghost" who lives in the attic of the home. Her husband Benoit (Stijn Van Opstal) gifts a pre-accident Mie with a "panic button" gadget that will help her call for help if something goes wrong. She doesn't need it, she tells Benoit. Why would she need a panic button when there's nothing to panic about? Everything about her pre-accident life suggests an awareness of the horror tropes and trends. And then, when things do go wrong, Mie and her family insist there's been a ruckus about nothing. Thanks to Mie's suspicious narration, even we don't know if there's something going on, really. It could all be in our heads — but wait, isn't that another trope?
There's also the matter of tabula rasa itself, a philosophical concept that suggests the mind is a blank slate until life experience begets personality. Mie, in this case, is the blank slate, constantly losing a sense of what was there.
Tabula Rasa is another one of Netflix's high-profile international purchases, following the acquisition of Germany's Babylon Berlin. The show premiered in October of 2017, garnering a lot of attention in the process. Tabula Rasa's producer Helen Perquy compared it to the Scandinavian series Borgen in a radio interview in October, predicting it would have international appeal. It, like Babylon Berlin, had a uniquely high budget. Well-regarded in Flanders, the show had its American premiere at the Fantastic Film Fest in October. Given the success of shows like The OA, Tabula Rasa could be the next big Netflix "thing" — although, fair warning, there's not an English audio option. Flemish it is, folks.