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Reality comes Undone in exquisite new series from BoJack Horseman team

Undone
Image: Amazon Studios
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It’s no mean feat to craft a show compelling enough to be consumed in one sitting, let alone one that practically demands you do it all over again immediately after finishing it, despite the fact that six other shows have probably premiered in the time it took you complete the first binge watch. But somehow, TV in 2019 has offered just that on at least three different occasions (so far): Russian Doll, Fleabag season two, and now, Amazon’s Undone, a bold and gorgeous new series from Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who have been pushing the boundaries of animated series on the devastatingly funny BoJack Horseman for the last five years. Their latest joint effort is just as cogent in its storytelling, but possibly even more ambitious.

That these shows also manage to tell endlessly engaging stories in half-hour installments and in fewer than 10 episodes per season is a wonder of its own. The comparisons don’t end there for Undone, which also centers a heady exploration of grief and pain around a quick-witted, somewhat fatalistic female lead—in this case, Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), a 28-year-old daycare worker whose ability to see life’s tedious nature for what it is hasn’t been enough to help her break free from its lackluster orbit. But instead of feeling derivative, Undone takes that sense of familiarity, born as much from recent streaming show premieres as multiple watches of The Matrix, and builds Alma’s world around it, only to shatter it just moments into the premiere.

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That in medias res opening helps brace us for the mind-warping journey that’s to come, one that feels no less epic when traversing Alma’s memories as when it goes cartwheeling through space and time. But it’s Salazar who sets the tone for this strikingly surreal, yet incredibly grounded series. She imbues Alma with enough vitality, vulnerability, and dry humor to translate across the many artistic techniques employed here. The series, which, like BoJack Horseman and the late, great Tuca & Bertie is under the Tornante banner, is an exquisite collage of 2D and 3D animation, oil paintings, and rotoscoping (courtesy of Minnow Mountain). The latter form—famously used in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, and more recently, on Adult Swim’s Dream Corp LLCsuits the show particularly well; it has both a disorienting effect and gives the scenes a rich, layered look that we soon come to see as symbolic of the barriers Alma’s built around herself.

But where some shows are occasionally done in by an over-reliance on flair, Undone’s singularly captivating visual style, overseen by director Hisko Hulsing, is always in service of its deeply affecting story. The Winograd-Diaz family, made up of Alma, Camila (Constance Marie, one of the most iconic Latina moms in Hollywood), Becca (Angelique Cabral), is in some ways still coping with the death of their paterfamilias, Jacob Winograd (Bob Odenkirk). But it’s Alma who struggles most with the idea of life just marching on in his absence, though at first, she appears to be resigned to a painfully ordinary existence. An early montage depicts her day from sunrise to sunset, swapping out backgrounds—her bathroom, her car, her workplace—as her expression remains weary. But the next time she’s in that loop, we note tiny changes like a deeper furrow in her brow or the glimmer of tears.

These shifts, which are all present in Salazar’s live-action performance (filmed on a black-box set), are brought into sharper relief by the very same rotoscoping technique that can create a sense of remove, that what we’re seeing is someone’s interpretation of what’s already happened. Which is appropriate, given that Alma grapples with that possibility and so many others that threaten—or promise—to upend her life throughout Undone’s eight-episode first season. Of course, there’s also the chance that this is all in her head, and her father isn’t actually traveling across the space between the living and the dead to contact her, and that she’ll continue to wake up next to her devoted boyfriend Sam (Patti Cake$ breakout Siddharth Dhananjay), go to work with Tunde (Daveed Diggs), endure her mother’s needling, and tolerate her sister’s excitement over her engagement to a rich dullard (voiced by Kevin Bigley, another BoJack alum).

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Rather than resolve that tension directly, Undone walks the fine line between these two paths, deploying the kind of scientific jargon that will sell you on time travel more effectively than Back To The Future, while also exploring the possibility that there is something else at play. Neither option is presented as the “right” one, but interestingly enough, it’s the mental-illness angle that has the higher bar to clear. On one end, we have theoretical physics, which can be glossed over (see: Avengers: Endgame). But given both the psychological profession and pop culture’s frequent mishandling of it, mental illness is a much tougher needle to thread. Purdy, who wrote what might be the most gut-wrenching episode of BoJack with “Time’s Arrow,” draws from her own experience with mental illness and family history of it, as well as the ways in which she sought help, including extensive research into shamanism and other Mesoamerican traditions.

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There are definitely times when that research lands like a lead balloon in the middle of one of Undone’s otherwise kaleidoscopic moments, but they still speak to the show’s thoughtful approach to every one of its aspects. That consideration is reflected not just in Jacob’s explanation of indigenous customs to his Jewish and Mexican-American daughters, but also in the portrayal of this multicultural family, who go to church together but never had a Christmas tree. Camila hardly ever speaks to her daughters in Spanish because she didn’t want Jacob to feel excluded, but she still nurses the pain of being unable to share that part of herself with her children. And while Purdy and Bob-Waksberg are certainly up to the task of telling these stories on their own, they collaborated with Latinx writers like fellow Undone producers Joanna Calo (who, along with Elijah Aron, are also part of the BoJack pedigree) and Lauren Otero, as well as consulted experts on indigenous cultures and mental illness. Even as it shows off its meticulously constructed worlds, Undone hints at uncharted territories, leaving it up to Alma and the viewer to decide whether or not they want to venture into them. But whether it’s a compelling journey inward or one with a more fantastical bent, Undone’s reality is one you’ll want to experience more than once.

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