Undone is the new series from writers and producers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the team behind the award-winning animation Bojack Horseman. Using a rotoscoping animation technique in which animation is traced over live-action footage, Undone stars Rosa Salazar and Bob Odenkirk in a story that uses a murder mystery as a launchpad for eye-popping reality-bending visuals.
The first thing that strikes you about Undone is the look. Rotoscoping is a technique not often used in movies let alone a fully-fledged TV series so to commit to it for 8 episodes is a commendable effort. Rotoscoping holds an edge over traditional animation because the performances of the actors can be fully captured whilst allowing all sorts of creative flair in and around them (see movies like A Scanner Darkly for reference). Salazar’s deadpan delivery combined with a highly expressive face that can seemingly convey both sarcasm and genuine feeling is heightened, rather than overwritten, by the rotoscoping.
In the midst of a mid-20s ‘is this it’ daily grind crisis, Alma (Salazar, from Brand New Cherry Flavor) is fending off commitment from her live-in boyfriend (Siddharth Dhananjay), coping with her younger sister’s upcoming marriage, and deflecting her overbearing mother (Constance Marie). Yet after a nasty car crash and thwack to the head, she begins receiving visits from her deceased father (Odenkirk) whom no-one but her can see. Not only does he ask for her help to investigate his murder, but he also claims that Alma has inherited abilities to be able to manipulate time and space to the point where she can rewind, fast forward, or teleport elsewhere entirely.
As it turns out the murder investigation tends to sit on the back burner; it acts as a reason to keep things going rather than the central intrigue of each episode. As Alma practices her abilities Purdy and Bob-Waksberg use the sumptuous palate of animation at their disposal to explore a variety of themes including mental illness, existential ennui, physical disability, and the importance (or not) of a persons lineage and heritage.
Alma comes from mixed indigenous Mexican and Jewish roots but also, as she learns, from a hereditary line of schizophrenia sufferers. Is this, as her father states, evidence instead of a genetic ability to manipulate time? Or are her growing ‘abilities’ instead a slow descent into delusion that is less fantastical, more an escape from drudgery? The show coyly lays down enough hints either way so you can come to your own conclusions. Odenkirk’s disheveled father figure is steps away from his iconic slippery performance in Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad but fans of those shows will recognise his put upon weariness which works well as a counterpoint to Salazar’s spikey nature.
There is also plenty of fun to be had in Undone even if it leans more into the ‘dramady’ tag rather than pulling on a comedy shroud. Alma and Sam’s (Dhananjay) couples banter is warmly realistic but also digs into how even a good relationship isn’t an automatic cure to feelings of listless detachment. Similarly, Alma’s relationship with her sister (Angelique Cabral) and mother is one of competing obligation, affection, and projection of her own fears.
Undone is a gorgeous living artwork when tearing away the curtain of reality in order to warp its own timelines, but central to selling this is a cast of realistic characters whom we care about. Fans of Bojack Horseman will be familiar with a show that cleverly weaves the battles between negative emotions and self-destructive behaviour together with distinctively enticing visuals.
The murder mystery element anchors its more trippy moments even if by itself it is probably the least interesting aspect. Undone is a treat to experience and a testament to the thoughtful and skilled ability of its creators. Life may wash over us with linear inevitability, but there is fun to be had in grabbing hold of it and twisting.
Words by Mike Record