Idiot Box: “Undone”

“Undone” On Amazon Prime

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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Amazon, which makes the bulk of its corporate profits shipping cell phone batteries and the like to lazy Americans, runs its Prime Video streaming service mostly as an attention getter. The service isn’t required to turn a huge profit; it’s just got to convince people to sign up for Amazon Prime—at which point, presumably, they’ll order more cell phone batteries. As a result, Amazon’s lineup of shows and movies is considerably more edgy than that offered by other services. From TV series (“Transparent,” “The Man in the High Castle,” “Euphoria,” ”Fleabag,” “Good Omens”) to movies (Logan Lucky, You Were Never Really Here, The Handmaiden, Suspiria), Amazon has created a slate of entertainment that feels riskier than the average Hollywood studio and occasionally quite a bit more rewarding.

A prime example of this is Amazon’s genre-hopping new series “Undone.” A delirious mash-up of comedy, drama, mystery, sci-fi and general metaphysical weirdness, the show is the work of creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy (both of whom worked together on Netflix’s dark animated sitcom “BoJack Horseman”). The series is animated in a style known as “rotoscoping,” which lays animation on top of live-action film footage. It’s a style utilized in Richard Linklater’s trippy fantasias
Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). The result is something realistic yet decidedly left-of-center.

Our main character in this odd, animated journey is Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar from
Alita: Battle Angel and the Maze Runner series). Alma is a twentysomething woman skating uncomfortably through life. She works at a day care center, has a live-in boyfriend and fights with her mother. Her sincere worry is that this is all there is to life and that the rest of her time on Earth will be wasted in a repetitive grind of the familiar, the clichéd and the standard-issue. Her younger sister (Angelique Cabral), for example, is about to get married to a boring, upper-middle-class white guy. This only furthers Alma’s resolve not to accept the traditional route of getting married, having kids and growing old. (Even if that’s probably what her boyfriend wants.)

One fateful night, her wish comes dangerously true: Alma is involved in a mysterious and near-fatal car crash. She ends up in the hospital in a coma—and that’s when things get weird. She starts seeing visions of her father, Jacob (the always-welcome Bob Odenkirk), who died when she was just 8 years old. Even stranger, she’s able to communicate with him. He insists that his death was an act of murder, and he needs Alma to solve the 20-year-old mystery and stop it from happening in the first place. Soon after, Alma finds herself slipping unwittingly though time and space—not unlike the character of Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s
Slaughterhouse Five.

Now, there are several possibilities to explain what’s happening to poor, confused Alma. Firstly, she could be lying in a hospital doped up on morphine, struggling with brain damage and hallucinating her brains out. She could also be awake, lucid and living through the same sort of schizophrenia that led to her grandmother’s premature death. Or—as her spectral father insists—she could be experiencing a profound mental awakening that allows her to have a “new relationship” with time. And with a little practice and coaching, she could actually travel back in time and prevent her father’s murder.

The best part of “Undone” is the way it treats each of these divergent ideas as realistic possibilities, each carrying their own emotional weight. A lot falls on Salazar’s shoulders, and she’s simply magnificent, crafting (with a lot of scripting help from Purdy) a character that is cynical, snarky, angry, emotional and desperately confused all at once. Clearly the death of her beloved father at such a young age had a profound affect on Alma, and she’s still struggling to deal with it. Even if she has gained the ability to live a “nonlinear” existence along her own timeline, she’s still going to have to stop along the way and pick up the pieces of her broken life.

So is this a psychological drama, a dark family sitcom or a head-trippy time travel paradox filled with stunning visual flights of fancy? Fortunately for viewers, it’s all three. Never pretentious or confusing and always confident of the story it’s telling, “Undone” is one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking shows of the year. If you enjoyed the mixture of disorienting science fiction and emotional personal growth in Netflix’s surreal comedy-drama “Russian Doll,” then “Undone” deserves to become your next binge-watch.
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