Despite the catastrophic crash that opens the series, it takes some time for “Undone” to reveal its story’s surprising depths. It seems at first to just be about Alma (Rosa Salazar), a San Antonio woman who spends just about every waking hour trudging through her own depressive fog, hoping that one day something extraordinary might happen to shake her out of it and prove that there’s something even mildly interesting worth living for. She has a job as a preschool teacher, a perfectionist younger sister (Angelique Cabral), a perpetually worried mother (Constance Marie), and an easygoing boyfriend (Siddarth Dhananjay) who insists he likes Alma the way she is, to her knee-jerk suspicion. She’s never gotten over the sudden death of her father (Bob Odenkirk). She’s disaffected, very funny, and a little mean despite herself. She also believes, as she tells her sister during a particularly tough conversation, that she has “a broken brain” that isn’t worth inflicting on other people, which makes her feel even lonelier than she maybe even realizes.
None of this is particularly new ground for TV to tread — but “Undone” is determined to tell this story differently.
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The most obvious new aspect of the series is that it’s not just animated, but animated in a rotoscope style that takes live-action footage and uses varying artistic techniques like oil painting to transform it into something a little more uncanny. (See: “A Scanner Darkly.”) So even before “Undone” takes its hard left turn into science fiction (or something like it), the rotoscope rendering of its characters and world immediately makes it stand out as different and more ambitious than usual. In the pilot, which stays almost entirely rooted in the banal details of Alma’s everyday life, the surreal animation feels somehow more bizarre than it does later as the show takes a deep dive into Alma’s supposedly “broken” brain. Then, the rotoscope and Hisko Hulsing’s directing thereof take on the crucial function of quite literally blurring the lines between Alma’s worlds. It’s impossible not to feel just how unstable the ground feels beneath her feet, no matter how kindly everyone around her insists otherwise.
This combination of unusual form and function is ultimately unsurprising given the creative team behind “Undone.” Co-creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, as well as many of the supervising producers, come from the equally wild animated world of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” which threads the spectres of trauma and mental illness through a Technicolor animated world populated by anthropomorphic narcissists. Purdy is also credited with some of the most devastating “BoJack” scripts, including the season 4 standout “Time’s Arrow,” which documented a woman’s scarring backstory amidst her unraveling reality. Tracing the progression from this episode to “Undone” makes for a line as straight as…well, an arrow.
As Alma explores the flickering walls of her own mind, not to mention her father’s surprising place within it, “Undone” follows “BoJack’s” reputation for pairing unusual animation with slicing wit and surprising pathos. (Less clear after seeing five of eight episodes is what exactly “Undone” is trying to say about the connection between mental illness and mysticism, but if any team can pull it all together, it should be this one.) It also gives Salazar, who very recently solidified a reputation for acting through heavy CGI in “Alita: Battle Angel,” an opportunity to prove just how good and charismatic she is no matter how her image is rendered. In another actor’s hands, Alma could easily become too sour or inaccessible. In Salazar’s, she’s understandable even when her actions seem inscrutable. Salazar can also deliver the hell out of a quip; Alma’s wicked sense of humor keeps the show sharp even through its deliberately smeared aesthetic. Odenkirk, for his part, soon clicks into a disarmingly curt delivery that keeps his character grounded despite his mysterious roots; he and Salazar make for a solid mismatched pair wherein each gives as good as they get.
Even when watching “Undone” is a deeply unnerving experience, it usually finds a way to twist its narrative, let its actors lean into their characters’ flaws, and reap unexpected rewards from often shattering revelations. There’s certainly no other show like it, which at this point is truly no small feat.
“Undone” premieres September 13 on Amazon Prime.