Published On: Thu, Sep 12th, 2019

Amazon Video’s animated series Undone could be the start of something amazing

When Alma, the sharp-witted, deeply troubled protagonist of Amazon Prime’s new animated series Undone, dresses as Dorothy for Halloween at age eight, her physicist father Jacob admits he doesn’t understand The Wizard of Oz. “You’ve got this girl Dorothy, right?” he asks. “She’s living a normal boring life, and she gets a chance to live an exciting life, and all she wants to do is go home. If you had a chance to do something amazing, would you just want everything to return to normal?”

Jacob doesn’t know it, but his argument gets some strong support from the film’s unofficial sequel, Return to Oz, where Dorothy insists her adventures in another world were real, so her aunt and uncle commit her to an asylum for electroshock therapy. Like that movie, Undone, which releases on September 13th, repeatedly makes it clear that living an exciting life can come with a terrible price.

Jacob (Bob Odenkirk of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad) dies in a car accident that Halloween, after leaving Alma (Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel) alone so he can tend to some mysterious crisis involving his work. Alma has never really gotten over it. She lives like a sleepwalker until she gets into her own near-fatal car crash. Jacob appears to her in the hospital to tell her that the trauma has awakened a latent ability to become unstuck in time, a power he thinks she can use to prevent his death. Alma’s grandmother was schizophrenic, but Jacob insists his mother actually had the same power as Alma and was just misunderstood. Through more than half of the show (five of the series’ 22-minute episodes were provided for advance review), Undone pointedly avoids addressing whether Alma’s ability is real or she’s experiencing a mental breakdown.

Undone employs rotoscoping, a technique where animators trace over live footage, for a smooth but surreal effect. Richard Linklater used rotoscoping to give Waking Life its dreamlike quality and A Scanner Darkly its psychedelic feel. Undone creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy use the technique in Undone to convey a sense of unreality, contrasting Alma’s fairly mundane life of working at a daycare and fighting with her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and mother Camila (Constance Marie) with the vivid cosmic planes and fantastic forests she visits when using her powers. Animation studio Submarine used oil paintings to produce these backdrops, and it’s incredibly startling when Alma’s regular surroundings, like her hospital room or home, are torn away and replaced with those more vibrant spaces. The show quickly establishes a sense that anything can happen at any time.

Alma’s trips through time feel like an extension of the work Bob-Waksberg and Purdy did as the creator and writer-producer of BoJack Horseman, where the title character has on occasion lost time and simply found himself in new scenes, due to his perpetual drug use. Alma skips backward and forward in time, letting the writers weave in flashbacks that explore her family life, but also jump forward to events that won’t occur in real time for several episodes. The technique is similar to the time-travel thriller Primer, but the narrative is much easier to parse, thanks to the guiding hand Jacob provides in telling Alma — through her, the audience — what’s going on and why.

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

As with BoJack Horseman, Bob-Waksberg and Purdy have shown a remarkable ability to pack each episode with dark drama, sharp comedy, and touching interplay between well-developed characters. The dynamic between Alma and Jacob is something between father and daughter, and Jedi master and Padawan. For every goofy moment where Alma gently ribs her dad or backpedals in a story to impress him instead of telling him the truth, there’s one where he urges her to avoid all other relationships so she can focus on her powers and his mission. That myopic focus would be disturbing even if it wasn’t possible that he’s just some complex delusion pulling Alma away from her living family.

BoJack and Alma share a lot of similarities, with complicated relationships with their families and a desire to use comedy to cover up their inner anguish. In the first episode, “The Crash,” Alma’s mom asks her to bleach her upper lip ahead of a dinner celebrating Becca’s engagement to her mayonnaise-bland but rich boyfriend, Reed Hollingsworth (regular BoJack Horseman guest star Kevin Bigley). Alma instead pencils a curly mustache on her lip. She often goes on political rants, and she out calls people around her on their hypocrisy with a contemptuousness that makes her feel like a hybrid between BoJack and Aubrey Plaza. But the tenderness Alma lets herself show when calming down a rambunctious kid at daycare or genuinely apologizing to Becca gives her a relatable, sympathetic quality that BoJack typically lacks.

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

While traveling through time, Alma retreads not only her own memories, but those of the people closest to her. Seeing those other perspectives produces a radical empathy similar to what the consciousness-sharing characters experience in the Wachowski sisters’ Netflix series Sense8. Alma gets to reconnect with her younger sister by reliving how much Becca once idolized her as a child, and she finds a new respect for her practical mother by learning that there was a lot she didn’t know about her more imaginative father. But the most touching example comes from a fight between Alma and her boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Sharing his memories, she comes to understand his fears of losing her, as she explores the isolation he’s felt as an Indian immigrant.

Alma is mostly deaf, though she can hear with the help of a cochlear implant. That just adds to the show’s focus on the subjective nature of perception, as the audio gets a muffled, submerged quality whenever Alma removes the external portion of her implant. The subtitles laying out her lip-reading are missing words to make it clear her comprehension isn’t perfect. It’s a jarring effect, particularly since Alma occasionally removes the device with the explicit intention of tuning the rest of the world out so she can focus on her increasingly strange inner life.

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Adult Western animation has traditionally leaned on the absurdist comedy popularized in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. BoJack Horseman is filled with ridiculous wordplay and jokes about its cast of animal people, but it uses that humor to lure viewers in before stunning them with deeply dramatic portraits of despair. It feels like Bob-Waksberg and Purdy built a similar bridge to get to the more powerful elements in Undone, which could have easily been a live-action science-fiction drama with hourlong episodes.

But the short episodes keep the narrative tight and mysterious, a technique that worked well for Amazon’s psychological thriller Homecoming. And the animation removes any limits on its visual ambitions. Undone’s rotoscoped style can be off-putting and startling, thanks to the shifting spaces and breaks with reality. The nonlinear storytelling and unreliable protagonist add to the sense that there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on here, which can be disconcerting. But the show’s combination of old animated technology and its fresh approach to serialized science fiction is appealingly ambitious and powerful. If this series helps mark a new wave of American adult animation, it could be the start of something truly amazing.

All eight episodes of Undone will be available on Amazon Prime Video on September 13th.

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