'Undone': TV Review

Eye-popping and captivating, even if the mystery is thin.
9/13/2019

'BoJack Horseman' veterans Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg explore mental illness, trauma and spirituality in this mind-bending rotoscoped dramedy from Amazon.

Amazon's new animated dramedy looks like no show on TV.

Undone is so consistently and intriguingly eye-popping as an advanced sensory experience that it's remarkably easy to forgive its failings on more simple narrative levels. Normally it would be hard to imagine endorsing an ostensible murder mystery in which I had zero investment in the mystery, but this series has so many things going on and offers so many other ways to become invested that caring about the literal plot hardly matters.

Is it fair to even describe Undone as a murder mystery? Sure, because it's pretty hard to describe it otherwise.

Created by BoJack Horseman veterans Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Undone is the story of limitedly motivated Alma (Rosa Salazar), stuck in a boring daily rut working at a day care facility (with Daveed Diggs as her boss), holding off her boyfriend's (Siddharth Dhananjay) bid for greater commitment and dealing with her newly engaged sister (Angelique Cabral) and pushy mother (Constance Marie). After a car accident, though, Alma starts getting visitations from her deceased father (Bob Odenkirk), who tells her that she has the ability, to some degree, to alter time and space and that, using that ability, she can help expose the truth about his death, which may have been a murder.

Is this an extrasensory gift? Is it a Groundhog Day or Slaughterhouse-Five kind of temporal loop? Or maybe Alma is just experiencing brain trauma from her accident. Or maybe Alma is just exhibiting the first symptoms of the mental illness that runs in her family. Or maybe it isn't actually mental illness that runs in her family and Alma's part of a lineage that includes indigenous seers?

Let's just say that everything in Undone is open to interpretation, and maybe there isn't even a murder mystery at all. Maybe Alma's concocting a grand conspiracy around her father's death because maybe this is just an examination of the way a traumatized mind copes with grief, and you can no more "solve" the mystery than you can solve grief. And maybe my lack of commitment to that strand of the series is exactly the point.

See? Wouldn't it have been simpler to just call Undone a murder mystery? Probably. But that would take away the fun.

Much of the fun of the five half-hour episodes sent to critics (the first season contains eight in all), is just looking at Undone, jaw somewhat agape. Director Hisko Hulsing has blended his own animation style with the work of the rotoscope animation house behind Tower and A Scanner Darkly to concoct a brew that's trippy and painterly and all unnervingly grounded in performance and reality.

It's one thing to appreciate Undone when Alma's journey has become cosmic and she's slipping in and out of consciousness, in and out of a dreary life in San Antonio. In those moments the show is hallucinogenic and giddily mad, and it's safer to sit back and watch it unfold than try to piece together what is or isn't happening to Alma as she floats among the stars or repeats epicycles of life meant to mirror the recovery process.

What's more interesting, though, is how well the series works when it's at its least whimsical or fantastical. The first episode is set almost entirely in Alma's day-to-day life, and the fascination lies in watching the way the animation and reality interact. What does the rotoscoping approach, which traces over footage of actors performing, do to a bantering conversation between sisters? How does it impact a playful — not graphic, because this is a show for grown-ups but not an "adult" show — bedroom scene between a couple? How does it enhance a childhood flashback? How does it change the work of its actors, some fairly recognizable and several of the "Wait, was that...?" variety.

There's a reason Salazar has been such a gift to storytellers who want to blend the recognizable and the fantastical — see Man Seeking Woman and Alita: Battle Angel. Her expressive eyes and her tendency toward dry line deliveries seem at odds, or suggest an internal counterpoint. She's an expert at appearing simultaneously amazed and unimpressed, a knack that's enhanced by the combination of rotoscoping and droll vocal performance. The rotoscoping, as opposed to traditional animation, lets Salazar develop tangible chemistry with Cabral and Marie and develop a real sweetness with Dhananjay.

Odenkirk is disheveled excellence as Alma's Yoda-esque father, whose matter-of-fact explanations for the show's remarkable premise make it easy not to take the nuts and bolts of it all too seriously. I think it's possible that this contributes to the lack of urgency in the grand mythology aspect of the series, but it also doesn't feel accidental.

Even without the murder mystery, Undone has interesting and unusual things on its mind. Alma comes from a blended family with indigenous Mexican and Jewish roots, and the former is a key part of the show's approach to spirituality. Perhaps the Jewish side will have its own mystical impact in later episodes. It's also notable that Alma lost her hearing in childhood and now wears hearing aids, with the debate over cochlear implants a significant part of the character's backstory and central to the overall sensory tapestry. Salazar has no hearing loss herself, but a young version of Alma is played by an actress who's deaf, making ASL a small part of the show's language.

Every episode of the series, with its disordered sense of reality, contains complicated ideas to unpack and the pleasures of the animation style to poke around in, as well as ample unforced humor. I'm still waiting for a certain level of emotional involvement to kick in, but Purdy and Bob-Waksberg have done exceptional work, at once silly and devastating, with similar components on BoJack — mental illness and narrative fragmentation are part of that show's foundation — so the potential is still there. For now, there's so much that works here that I've made quick peace with the fact that this is a whodunit in which the answer doesn't yet matter to me at all.

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay, Daveed Diggs
Creators: Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)