Loops, quantum entanglement, and a lot of screwed-up people: Time travel shows have fully embraced the inverse relationship between narrative linearity and character troubles. The latest to do so is Undone, the rotoscoped Amazon series from BoJack Horseman creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg. It’s not just nonlinear—it’s antilinear. Linear storytelling is antithetical to its entire premise, as embracing atypical perception is its goal. The diverse (and neurodiverse) experiences of its characters—told through immigrant stories, multicultural backgrounds, and yes, those that can screw with the timeline—exist to create a message of complicated inclusion that makes the bold yet repetitive show completely unique. Thankfully, it’s also visually exciting enough to sustain most of its philosophical musings, with a central character charming enough to shoulder some head-shaking misfires.
I got to see the first five half-hour episodes (a welcome rarity for a weird, heady drama), in which director Hisko Hulsing and an animation team—including those behind the outstanding documentary Tower—provide the same kind of dreamy visuals that served Richard Linklater’s Rotoshopped Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly so well. Rotoscoping gave the Austin slacker’s stories a psychedelic veneer, but Undone feels animated at its core, so dedicated to its visual strangeness that the silliness of its own bong-rips-at-midnight complexity could almost feel tongue-in-cheek if the subject matter wasn’t so tragic.
Earlier this year, Netflix’s Russian Doll set a standard for mindbending black comic genre fare by doing familiar time travel tropes cleverly, and with an emotional bedrock beneath it all. Both that show and Undone feature a sarcastic female lead and strong central traumas which are strictly related to the temporal instability. In the latter’s case, the character is far stronger than the sum of her emotional journeys. Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar plays Alma, a small-scale rebel—one who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Linklater film—who has a brush with death in a car accident. Afterwards, the ordinarily strict workings of time play hooky and she sees her dead dad (Bob Odenkirk) appear before her. He goes full Hamlet and tells her that he was actually murdered. Of course, Alma is the only one who can set things right thanks to her special abilities.
It’s a strange story, and it only gets stranger as we follow Alma down the rabbit hole. The characters, which include Alma’s sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and mom Camila (Constance Marie) alongside her ghost pop’s existential Yoda (there’s even a “there is no ‘try’” moment), are more coherent than the tale they’re telling, which is the only way a show that’s attempting to be mysterious but not cliffhanger-y can keep you watching.
Salazar (who has a knack for being partially animated) is exceptionally expressive, which is perhaps why she’s being sought for these projects. She’s able to communicate sarcasm, reproach, disgust, and reluctant affection with an eye roll. That nuance is hard for an actor to project and harder to capture with a camera, though Mary Elizabeth Winstead is particularly good at this, and that’s who Salazar channels here. A little heightened cartoonishness ironically allows the actors—Salazar especially—to be more realistic (and endlessly GIF-able).
Odenkirk is equally good at delivering long bits of complicated metaphysical nonsense and being utterly untrustworthy. As soon as he shows up to convince Alma that she needs to help him solve his own murder and hone her abilities, we’re thinking “Ok, this guy is totally using her.” But it’s not just her dad. The men in her life are presumptuous, gaslighting, and overbearing, including her boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay, who deserves way more work after his breakout turn in Patti Cake$) and her co-worker played by Daveed Diggs.
Its critique of the patriarchy is just one of the many Big Ideas the show wants to grapple with, and it can feel like you overbooked yourself on grad school classes. Topics flood the plot while false equivalence brews in the brackish water. The protagonist has at least one possible mental illness (schizophrenia) along with deafness addressed with a cochlear implant. The latter aspect of her life allows the series to show each person’s own version of reality, where the question of getting the implant is one that will fundamentally change how she’ll experience the world and whom she’ll experience it with. The former is given a more … magical treatment.
Yes, the show is also interested in shamans and transcendence. While there are some interesting interpretations of things like totems—an electronic blackjack game becomes a channeling device of repetitive, mindless action—the show’s weird mixture of pseudoscience and exploitation (we took an MRI of a shaman’s brain and you’ll never guess what we found!!) takes real-life debates in the mental health and anthropological community and assigns answers. It can often feel like sci-fi for the homeopathy crowd.
Grown from a BoJack drug trip episode and the personal details of Purdy’s life (including the family history of schizophrenia, suicide attempts, and interest in indigenous cultures/medicines), Undone needed to, and apparently did, consult a lot of experts in its topics of choice. I’m not sure it helped. There’s simply too much, and too much that feels brazenly antithetical to the show’s deft handling of trauma.
But Alma’s recovery, and how it reacts with her mental illness, is where the show shines. Making the most of its format, the show injects flashbacks into daily moments without cutting away and forces its heroine to relive her trauma in front of us. More than the sweat-beaded gasps awake in the middle of the night or other psychological shorthand often used to get the same idea across, representing the addled and repetitive focuses of its protagonist’s brain makes Undone’s trauma feel realistically inescapable. It also feels realistically destructive to relationships (professional and personal), as she becomes increasingly unreliable in tandem with the narrative and visual lucidity.
Sometimes this marriage of mental state and visual state manifests in a beautiful way, breaking down character backgrounds into a mini melting pot montage, while sometimes it too-briefly delves into conversations that deserve depth. That means within minutes, an episode of Undone can be tear-jerking and eyebrow-furrowing; your expressions become almost as animated as those in the show itself. That can be an uneven, frustrating experience. But it’s also nice to see some chances taken and some leaps leapt, especially when it wears its weirdness on its sleeve. Undone is ambitious to a fault, beautiful as all get-out, but more enjoyable when its focus doesn’t stray too far from its great lead performance.
Undone premieres Friday, September 13th on Amazon.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.