Amazon's 'Undone' Is One of the Best, Trippiest New TV Shows You Haven't Seen Yet
Oddly enough, it was the "I'm humping your butt!" scene that sold me. Amazon Prime's new animated series Undone -- which uses photorealistic rotoscope animation to follow a young woman's time-hopping search for answers to her father's death -- comes wrapped in a veil of phantasmagoric sci-fi, but I can't stop thinking about the third scene of its first episode, which couldn't be more grounded in the reality of cishet relationships. In it, our shaman protagonist Alma (Rosa Salazar) climbs into bed with her longtime boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) after a long night of sisterly drinking (meaning, lots of tequila shots) and wakes him up by jokingly thrusting over him.
"How long are you gonna do that?" Sam asks.
"Till it annoys you," Alma replies.
Alma and Sam's life is lived-in. Her humping jokes and the intimacy with which he tucks her hair behind her ear are habitual, and as sweet as those moments are, the routine grinds on Alma. The scene is a good early example of the naturalism that saturates Undone -- even when it dives through the mysteries of time and space.
The choices to integrate familiarity and human detail into an animated show about shamans, time-travel, and a potential criminal conspiracy don't come as much of a surprise given the pedigree of talent behind the show. The episodes are directed by animator Hisko Hulsing, who previously animated segments of the 2015 HBO documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. In that film, his photorealistic animation was paired with readings of Cobain's intensely personal diary entries, whereas here, the painstaking rotoscoping -- which begins with filming live actors and ends in animation reminiscent of a moving painting -- illustrates scripts largely written by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, both of BoJack Horseman fame. Where rotoscope animation can sometimes feel clinical or overly surreal, as in Richard Linklater's early 2000s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly or 2017's technically groundbreaking and Oscar-winning Loving Vincent, it feels warm and personal in Undone's textured San Antonio setting; you can even see specks of dust floating through some of the shots. (A disclosure: I knew one of Undone's live-action cinematographers, Nick Ferreiro, in college and collaborated with him on video projects there.)
Like BoJack, Undone can be both tender and mordant, and nearly all of its characters' lives operate on flawed contradictions. Our heroine Alma can be both stridently avoidant but also fiercely passionate, as ready to push someone like Sam away as she is to give him affectionate, consecutive pecks on mouth. The show's primary lesson, even as Alma begins to tip-toe through time is that actions carried out under stress -- like being too drunk, or having an emotional breakdown, or leaving your daughter alone in order to run to work -- can have explosive consequences.
Undone, each of its episodes clocking in at 20-odd minutes, begins in earnest with Alma getting into a car crash after an emotional fight with her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral). Salazar, wearing a very different animated face than she did in Alita: Battle Angel, plays Alma like a thick rubber band in a slingshot -- constantly testing the limits of stress while using that tension to hurl insults and barbs at those closest to her. After Alma insists that she and her sister are "broken people" because they lost their father in a car crash when they were little girls, Alma later tears through the streets of San Antonio, sobbing and speeding through stop signs. She briefly sees a ghostly image of her father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) in front of her as she's driving. Then an oncoming car t-bones her.
The event, and after waking from a coma, triggers Alma's ability to warp and rewind time, inherited through her father and her paternal grandmother, and the show plays its fallout similarly to a BoJack episode credited to Purdy, "Time's Arrow." In that episode and much of Undone, the plot skips through time to reveal the roots of their respective protagonists' intergenerational trauma. In Undone, the results can sometimes be confusing, but they mimic Alma's own confusion at getting shunted back and forth and having to repeat events and conversations in her life. They also tether her powers and her relationship to reality directly to her mental health and her hearing disability, where Alma wears -- and sometimes strips off -- a hearing aid to go about her daily life, or disconnect from it. Eventually, she connects with Jacob, who has the same shamanic powers Alma has but is trapped in a ghostly liminal state following his death. Odenkirk, more known for his sleazeball and comedic acting chops, gives a warm and vulnerable performance here, and Jacob tasks her with the mission of uncovering the conspiracy of how he died.
Meanwhile, in Alma's present, her friends and family are understandably concerned. Her sister has a wedding to plan, and her mother and sister don't hesitate to remind her of the inconvenient timing of her accident after she wakes. Alma's interactions with her father, to an outside observer, look like she's talking to no one. She also has a history of mental health issues, not least of which include her scars from a suicide attempt earlier in her life.
Nonetheless, to the viewer, it's obvious throughout that Alma may be flawed, but she is not, in fact, crazy. You could say that her mental health "problem" is that she's capable of seeing her own life's history, and perhaps even the entire universe, with more clarity of perspective than anyone else alive.
Let's return, once again, to that scene from the first episode. After some humping, Alma makes Sam promise that their lives won't match that of her sister's, with marriage and prospective children and, she groans, "being all happy." Sam agrees, and they share a deep kiss.
"But it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world," he adds. Alma grunts, saying that was the wrong answer before flipping Sam over and resuming her pelvic thrusts. "No, no! You're humping me again?" Sam laughs. "You're so crazy." Then the tone shifts.
"No, I'm not. I'm not crazy," Alma says sternly.
"OK, sorry," Sam says. "Sorry."
This early shredding of the tired "crazy" sticker, something that targets folks dealing with mental health issues every day, points toward the argument Undone makes throughout its eight episodes. Despite Alma's quirks and struggles, she possesses great power and the agency to self-actualize when tagged with a label, well-meaning or otherwise. When I finished watching Undone, I was left wanting more of Alma's hallucinogenic temporal world, as if I ingested her breaks from reality to become my own.