Undone (2019)

Season 1: Episodes 01 – 08

First developed by pioneering American filmmaker Max Fleischer, rotoscoping is a weird little subset of the art of animation. Boiled down to the basics, it involves shooting live-action footage of actors and then using that as the ‘framework’ for animated cels, either live-action or, these days, CGI.

The result is unusual and can be offputting: the clarity of cel animation, the fluid movement, and expressiveness of live-action, coming right out of the Uncanny Valley and onto your screen. Perhaps the most famous — or notorious — deployment of the technique was in American animator Ralph Bakshi’s beloved but broken 1978 stab at filming J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an effort that showcases rotoscope’s flaws and advantages perfectly.

Stuck in a rut

It never gained a huge level of popularity. However, every so often a major project ‘resurrects’ the process, often because of the surreal, filtered sheen it can put over seemingly realistic figures and settings — Richard Linklater teamed up with animator Bob Sabiston for Waking Life (2001) and the Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006) for precisely this reason. It is not a massive stretch that current animation golden boy Raphael Bob-Waksberg, BoJack Horseman (2014), and Kate Purdy had similar intentions in deploying the technique in their new series, Undone, a tale of grief, familial trauma, possible mental illness, and time travel. If PKD had focused his attention on Latinx generational dramedies instead of sci-fi, he might have come up with something like this.

Our heroine is Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), a disaffected young woman living in San Antonio, Texas, whose life begins to take a turn for the surreal after a bad car crash. It’s then that her father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), begins appearing to her — which is odd because he died in a similar car accident when she was a child. He tells her that her injuries have awakened a latent ability to become deliberately unstuck in time, à la Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five but with a degree of control, and if she can learn to harness her powers effectively, she can change the events that led to his death.

‘Don’t drink and drive. But if you do, call me.’

Now, would you call that connecting with a higher plane of reality or mental illness?

Undone isn’t going to help you answer that question, providing evidence and tonal cues for both (and perhaps both simultaneously). Alma is functionally depressed, sleepwalking through her life, acting out against her controlling mother, Camila (Constance Marie), fighting with her sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), and treating her boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) with benign disdain at best. Later we learn that her paternal grandmother was diagnosed as schizophrenic; her dad-ghost says she was manifesting the same powers Alma now has and was wrongfully committed, but he would, wouldn’t he?

And the world that Alma can seemingly access is so alluring, with the backgrounds rendered in gorgeous oil paintings. Her father, long absent from her life, is back to introduce her to ways of being and seeing inaccessible to ordinary people. As her powers develop, she plugs into avenues of empathy and understanding that make her a better person to her loved ones, even as her more erratic behaviors make her an object of concern. What’s the straight path here? What’s the ninefold path?

Like Father, Like Daughter

To draw another line back to Philip K. Dick and A Scanner Darkly, Undone gets a lot of mileage out of ruminations on the nature of subjectivity. Obviously, Alma’s experiences feel real to her, even if they’re invisible or inexplicable to everyone around her. More concretely, she suffers from hearing loss and has a cochlear implant that she sometimes disconnects when feeling overwhelmed, literally using technology to change her experience of the universe around her. Brilliantly, the subtitles when she reads lips are rendered imperfectly — a neat trick to reinforce our and her imprecise interpretation of the ‘real’ world, and one I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before. It makes the series’ more complex meditations on reality, sanity, and our relationship to both more accessible — rendering them down into a more readily understandable concept.

Similarly, Undone takes pains to offer as much time to its familial dramas as it does to Alma’s phenomenological problems, and it’s the interplay between the two, the mystic and the domestic, that gives the series its unique flavor. Alma doesn’t exist in isolation. She’s a daughter to a disapproving mother, has a sister who is soon to be married (and whose relationship Alma seems driven to sabotage on an instinctive level), she has a job teaching small children, a caring but needy boyfriend, and all these lines of relation and interaction are given as much weight as the series’ fantastical elements.

‘Oh snap! Got a photo with the bride!’

So, is it good? Hell, yes. It doesnt strike the same resonant chord as BoJack Horseman, but in its way, it’s bolder and more provocative and lacks the surreal non-sequiturs that BoJack can whip out to spice up any given scene or patch any narrative lull. Undone feels like it’s reaching for something more profound and relying on more subtle tools to do so. The risk there is that a good chunk of your potential audience is simply not going to pick up what you’re putting down, but if you’re attuned to it, this is a wry, poignant, intelligent, and experimental series that rewards close watching and open thinking. Its first, brief eight episodes leave plenty of unanswered questions, so here’s hoping enough people are up for the experience of Undone to warrant a season two revisit to this corner of the universe.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Undone is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video