How do you recap a TV show that has only begun to hint at what it’s actually doing in the closing seconds of its first episode?
If you’ve seen the trailer for Undone — or even read the plot summary on the show’s Amazon streaming page — you already know that there’s a big, trippy twist on the horizon. But like last summer’s similarly pitched Amazon series Forever, Undone keeps its cards close to the vest in the first episode, focusing on developing the protagonist as a singular human being before taking her on a truly surreal journey.
So if you came into the Undone premiere expecting, I don’t know, Bob Odenkirk floating through outer space, you might be a little puzzled. But here’s the good news: Even if Undone kept its feet firmly planted in kitchen-sink realism for the entirety of its first season, it would still be a terrific new TV series, full of dazzling animation, well-drawn characters, and razor-sharp dialogue.
After a brief flash-forward depicting a car crash that will come at the end of the episode, Undone formally introduces us to Alma (Rosa Salazar), a 28-year-old day-care worker whose mischievous sense of humor is a paper shield against her feelings of existential despair. The episode offers a few hints that there might be deeper, more external reasons for Alma’s malaise — but for now, her main frustration seems to be the sheer mundanity of day-to-day existence.
“I’m so bored of living,” Alma says in voice-over near the beginning of the episode. The subsequent montage is a routine that will look familiar to … well, to most of us, as Alma half-sleepwalks through a boring, ordinary day in what’s starting to feel like a boring, ordinary life.
The key to this montage is not that Alma’s day is boring. It’s that it doubles back on itself. In the morning, she wakes up next to her boyfriend, brushes her teeth, and drives from home to work. In the evening, she drives from work to home, brushes her teeth, and goes to bed next to her boyfriend. And if every day is just a mirror image of itself, it can start to feel like you’re not doing anything at all.
That’s not true, of course. Even someone who looks like she’s standing still is growing in one way or another. But it’s how Alma feels, and it explains the choices she makes throughout the premiere, which all stem from a desperate desire to shake herself out of a rut.
First comes Alma’s relationship with her younger sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral). Over drinks, Becca reveals that she’s engaged to a guy named Reed Hollingsworth, who has the bank account to match his comically upper-crust name. Alma half-heartedly feigns support for about five seconds before ticking off a list of “good” qualities that ends with “his family is really rich and well-connected and super-classist and racist.”
Becca’s news is enough to shake the foundations of Alma’s own relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Returning home drunk later that night, she makes Sam promise that they’ll never become one of those couples who gets married, settles down, and “is, like, all happy.” Sam is low-key and amiable enough to agree, but it’s still not enough for Alma. Following a small and uncomfortable dinner party to celebrate Becca’s engagement — during which Reed delivers a sweetly awkward toast to his future bride that practically makes Alma gag — Alma breaks up with Sam on the drive home.
And next, having blown up her own life, Alma decides to blow up Becca’s life as well. Over another round of drinks, Alma indulges in a little playacting, taking Becca’s engagement ring and pretending it’s her own. That’s enough to spark an interaction between the two sisters and the hunky bartender, which — with a little prodding from Alma — turns into a game of Truth or Dare that ends with Becca and the bartender making out while Alma quietly slips away.
It’s not clear exactly what else happened with the bartender, though Becca’s late arrival for church with their mother the following morning certainly implies that it was a late night. And when Alma teases her younger sister for her dalliance, it explodes into a full-on argument. “We’re broken people, and broken people break people,” Alma says, shrugging off both of their roles in a situation that would, at the very least, cause some pain for Becca’s fiancé. “You’re so insanely self-involved that you don’t even know all the things that are wrong with you,” counters Becca.
“No, I do,” says Alma, at the end of an episode that has shown exactly how self-consciously self-destructive she can be. And as she drives away, tears streaming down her face, she sees something that diverts her attention: Her father (Bob Odenkirk), who has been dead since she was a child, standing at the side of the road. The distraction is enough to cause a major car crash with Alma at the center. For better or worse, she got her wish: Her life isn’t looking so boring anymore.
Pieces of Mind
• Undone achieves its eye-catching animation style via rotoscoping — a process in which animators trace over frames of live-action footage, which has been used in films like Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
• Undone was co-created by BoJack Horseman’s Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, and you can see a lot of Undone’s DNA in their previous work — particularly in Bob-Waksberg’s new short-story collection, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, and the Purdy-penned BoJack episodes “The Old Sugarman Place” and “Time’s Arrow,” which all wrestle with temporality in unique and fascinating ways.
• Alma is hearing-impaired and uses a cochlear implant — a condition that is depicted with refreshing matter-of-factness as a part of Alma’s life but not her defining trait.
• Alma’s sense of nihilism is informed, at least in part, by her grandmother Geraldine, whom Alma describes as a schizophrenic who went through a miserable cycle of lithium and shock treatments.
• Alma likes to mess with bartenders by ordering fake cocktails. (A “Fancy Familiar,” for the record, is a “Mozambique Sambda” without the sherbet.)
• Alma’s mother, Camila (Constance Marie), suggests that Alma bleach her upper lip before the engagement party. Alma responds by drawing a luxuriously curly black mustache onto her face.
• Sam’s (pretty good!) idea for a non-cutesy couples’ Halloween costume: Batman and Bruce Wayne.
• Sam also has some solid ideas for non-boring professional tracks he and Alma could embark upon: vagabonds, cat burglars, or hot-air balloonists. If you ask me: Why not all three?