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FEATURING:, , , Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay
PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.
COMMENTS: Fans of Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.s
This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.
“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.
Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.
It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.
“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;” try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider
- “Undone”‘s director, Hisko Hulsing, also used rotoscoping for his University of Texas clock-tower-shooting documentary Tower (2016). Something about central Texas lends itself to this style.