Amazon finally gets its TV masterpiece with Undone
The most visually stunning show on television
It's not that Amazon makes bad television shows. There is, of course, the Emmy-winning Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Golden Globe-winning Mozart in the Jungle, the critical darling One Mississippi (Fleabag, meanwhile, is a co-production with the BBC). But for a streaming service that has made no secret of its ambitions to catch up with Netflix, a lot of Amazon's original programming has ended in disappointment. Too much. At this point, Amazon Studios might be better associated with the scandal-plagued Transparent; its ill-advised gamble on a Woody Allen series; and recent ambitious flops like The Romanoffs and Carnival Row.
So naturally, when a quiet little series like Undone comes along, you might ignore it. It isn't the flashiest show Amazon has ever worked on, nor does it check any of the boxes for becoming the "next Game of Thrones." It might even seem repellently weird — a half-hour animated series for adults, dealing with mental health, time travel, and grief. That's not exactly HBO-sexy. Yet with Undone, Amazon Studios has finally struck gold. Almost without realizing it, the studio has landed, at last, on its masterpiece.
Created by BoJack Horseman's Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Undone is an eight-part sci-fi dramedy starring Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) as Alma, a 28-year-old daycare instructor living with her boyfriend (Siddharth Dhananjay) in San Antonio, Texas. After getting in a fight with her newly-engaged younger sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), Alma crashes her car, ending up briefly in a coma. When she wakes up, she is able to see and interact with her long-dead father (Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad's Bob Odenkirk), who claims he was murdered and that he needs Alma's help traveling back in time to stop his killer.
At least, that's ostensibly what the show is about. In practice, the series is far more complicated and layered, flickering through time and space nonlinearly, doubling back on itself, and planting a trail of clues that presumably coalesce at the show's end (critics were only given the first five episodes; Undone will premiere in full on Amazon on Friday). Looming over Alma's unraveling, meanwhile, is the specter of her grandmother's schizophrenia; it is never certain if Alma's visions are actually hallucinations or a true metaphysical realm. When Alma finally blurts out to a confidant that "I'm seeing my dead father because of my big brain ventricles and he's training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered," her interlocutor responds in likely the same way as someone reading this synopsis for the show: "Uhh...?"
But Undone is radically beautiful, at least in part thanks to the use of an animation technique called rotoscope. Director-animator Hisko Hulsing worked on Undone with the production studio Minnow Mountain, which was also responsible for A Scanner Darkly. The process involves filming the human actors and then painting over the images, so that Alma, say, has the physical features and facial expressions of actress Salazar, stoking an intentional uncanny valley. Even the mundane backdrops of Alma's world are oil paintings, although the rotoscope style particularly justifies its use when Alma is in the colorful dream-realms with her father, or flashing through her memories of visiting Aztec pyramids, or even just strolling along the San Antonio river walk at night. At a time when animation is trending toward photorealism (the soulless "live action" remake of The Lion King being the most egregious example), it is refreshing to see animators instead pull in the other direction, making reality look fake.
While I admit to having been initially resistant to the rotoscope look based on the trailer alone — it marks the first time the technique has been used for a major television show — the visual vocabulary of Undone almost instantly makes itself feel essential. On the one hand, that's practical: The animators are able to rely on the visual expressions of their cast, with Salazar in particular having such control of her face that she is able to look both stand-offish and vulnerable at the same time. It also makes it easier to accept something like the sky shattering open over a hospital cactus garden.
But sneakily, the animation also serves to envelope Alma's own worldview, which is slightly off-kilter ("do you ever feel like you're in a play?" she asks in the first episode). That detail isn't limited to how the show looks, either: Alma has a cochlear implant in order to hear, and when she removes the aid, the sound on the show also becomes muffled. When Alma revisits memories that took place before her surgery, when she was mostly deaf and relied on reading lips, viewers are offered subtitles, although speakers' words will sometimes be missing in cases when Alma herself isn't able to pick them up with certainty.
Undone isn't only a visual and aural triumph. The script crackles with energy and spirit, excavating topics as varied as the complicated ways families hurt each other, or the way people retreat when they find themselves dependent on someone else. Grief, inherited mental health issues, disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder are neither romanticized nor character-defining; they're facts of existence. Like Bojack, the show deals with weighty themes, but it is also shockingly funny, full of humor and life. Although nothing about Undone is really supposed to feel real, it stays grounded by the fact that all the characters in it do, from the manipulative father to the boyfriend who just doesn't know how to make things right again.
Despite the fact that the show seems all but assured to garner a small cult of diehard fans, Undone won't become the blockbuster Amazon is looking for, and it won't single-handedly win them the streaming wars. What it is, though, is that once-in-a-blue-moon show that steals your heart and leaves you stunned by the possibilities of a medium that, in a "golden age" of over-saturation, can feel creatively depleted. Don't let Undone pass you by.
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