tv review

Undone Is a Fascinating Head Trip

Rosa Salazar in Undone. Photo: Amazon Studios

Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, two of the minds behind Netflix’s brilliant BoJack Horseman, are the creators of Undone, but you may not realize that at first sight. Even though Undone is, like BoJack, an animated series in which a protagonist confronts buried psychological issues, its style is very, very different.

Created using rotoscope animation, a process in which live-action footage is traced to yield animated imagery, Undone resembles Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly more than the Netflix series about a washed-up equine sitcom star. (In fact, the same team that did the rotoscope work on A Scanner Darkly also worked on Undone.) But that very specific choice of medium is a perfect fit for this Amazon drama, which slides regularly between the present, the past, and interactions that may or may not be hallucinations.

The first episode introduces Alma (Rosa Salazar), a day care employee in a committed but humdrum relationship with her boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) whose younger sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) is newly engaged. After breaking up abruptly with Sam and getting into an argument with Becca, Alma gets into a major car accident that temporarily puts her in a coma. When she awakens in episode two, she starts seeing things around her differently.

Her hospital room suddenly dissolves into a pivotal Halloween night from her childhood. Also, her late father, played by Bob Odenkirk, is right there in the room, talking to her even though he died in a car accident years earlier. As the episodes progress — Amazon provided five for review out of eight total — Alma begins to cross from one realm to the next with even more fluidity, though sometimes she can’t always control those crossings to the extent she desires. (At one point, she ends up completely naked in front of a classroom full of her students.) But her dad, Jacob, acts as her guide, showing her how to bend time and space to her will for a specific reason: he wants her to travel backwards several years to find out how he actually died. As he tells her, it may not have been a car crash on that Halloween night that did him in after all.

The idea for Undone came to Purdy, according to a New York Times interview, when she was working on the trippy BoJack Horseman episode “Downer Ending,” back in season one. The vibe of Undone is similar to the more experimental, non-linear installments of BoJack — the Alzheimer’s-focused “Time’s Arrow” also comes to mind. As Alma engages with her father, argues with her still-alive mother, and begins to recall more and more repressed moments from when she was a girl, more questions arise as to what is really going on with her. Did the car accident dislodge data from somewhere inside her brain, or did it cause genuine damage? Is she suffering from a mental illness that explains the scattershot nature of her thought process? Is it possible she never woke up from the coma? Without seeing the entire season, it’s hard to know whether these questions will be resolved or whether this stream-of-consciousness storytelling will pay off. But I do know that Undone gets more fascinating with each episode and avoids becoming too unwieldy by keeping those episodes tight, with runtimes clocking in at a just-right 23 minutes.

This type of animation is not normally done for television and you can see why. Every frame announces that hours and hours of work went into crafting its details, from the sarcastic twinkles in Alma’s eyes to the soft glow of lights along San Antonio’s river walk. But director Hisko Hulsing, who handled the animated sequences in Cobain: Montage of Heck, is also mindful of sound. As a child, Alma was deaf and only began to hear fully once she got a cochlear implant. Her pre-implant memories often sound like they’re coming from far, far underwater, adding to the sense that, in all aspects of her life, Alma is grasping for something that’s just out of reach.

Salazar, who starred in Alita: Battle Angel and played Zoe on NBC’s Parenthood, has an earthy, grounded quality that makes it natural to trust her and believe everything she’s experiencing is real. Whether it is or not remains to be seen. But Undone’s unusual sense of flow makes you want to go with it, even when — maybe especially because — it’s never clear where or when it’s going to jump next.

Undone Is a Fascinating Head Trip