One of the first things you see in “Undone” is a car crash. One of the last things you see, in the pilot at least, is a car crash. One of the things you see the most over five episodes of Season 1 — in a myriad of different ways, interrupting various other moments — is this same exact car crash, where Alma (Rosa Salazar) gets T-boned after running a stop sign because she sees… something… on the side of the road. That “something” holds great meaning to the central mystery, but, as it first appears in the show, it’s just a few brush strokes on the giant canvas that is “Undone”; it’s an important part, but also a means to the bigger picture — and I’m not just talking about the show’s groundbreaking format.
“Undone,” the new half-hour original program from creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg (both of whom work on Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman”), is the first serialized TV show made with rotoscope animation. Rotoscoping is a process where artists trace over images that have already been captured, alter that footage with original artwork, or find a way to do both at once — you’ve seen it before in films like “A Scanner Darkly,” and the same team who made Richard Linklater’s 2006 film helped animate “Undone,” as well. The visuals, which are breathtaking in and of themselves, also compliment the series’ wide-ranging ambition, from the genres it smashes together to the themes of its core story.
Together, the animation and the writing compliment each other to form a unique new form of television; one that’s easy to get caught up in, even when it stumbles a bit while explaining itself. “Undone” is a fascinating project to examine, but it’s also a very good, very human story, sans the flashy packaging.
Leading up to the crash, Alma’s life is presented as mundane to the point of frustrating. She’s stuck in a rut, bouncing between her routine job at a daycare center and a quiet life at home with her live-in boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Further exacerbating Alma’s discontent is her all-too-normal sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral) and all-too-traditional mother, Camila (Constance Marie). Becca is recently engaged, which serves as a) a reminder for Alma that her best friend and drinking buddy will soon be domesticated, b) a trigger for Camila, who’s hoping Alma will soon follow in her sister’s footsteps, and c) a trigger for Alma, who needs a change and doesn’t know exactly where to look.
These conflicts heat to a boil over the course of an engrossing debut episode, leading to the aforementioned car crash and a twist on the narrative only hinted at in the initial half-hour. Ostensibly, “Undone” revolves around one question: What happened to Alma’s father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk)? He died in a car crash when Alma was an adolescent, but he resurfaces after Alma’s own accident to ask for her help. Is he a hallucination? A symptom of brain trauma? A time-traveling pseudo-spirit trying to help his daughter from behind the grave?
From Episode 2 onward, “Undone” focuses on training and practice, as Jacob urges Alma to tap into a mysterious ability he claims to have mastered: the power to travel through space and time, altering timelines along the way. Perhaps she can save his life. Perhaps she can save her own. Or, by indulging in her visions, perhaps Alma is ruining the life she’s already built — are her choices self-healing or self-destructive? Is she burning down everything and everyone around her because she’s fed up with a banal existence, or is she actively addressing her mental illness in order to save those very same things?
This kind of confusion should be deeply relatable to anyone who’s taken risks, broken the status quo, or made difficult life decisions. It’s often hard to know you’re doing the right thing as it’s happening, and “Undone” brings that confusion to beautiful, convincing life through its animation. As Alma tries to sort out one issue, others come crashing through — literally. She might be sitting in a hospital bed, but then she’s suddenly transported behind the wheel of her car. Or she’s having a fight with her sister, and the sky comes crashing down around them, sending Alma adrift into the cosmos.
Purdy, Bob-Waksberg, and director Hisko Hulsing (“Montage of Heck”) find more and more inventive ways to transition between scenes, emotions, and stories as the series progresses, creating a wild atmosphere always grounded in Alma’s perspective. The format helps you see things as she experiences them as much as it helps you feel what she’s going through, but the creative team takes things one step further and realigns the series’ structure, too. After starting off with a pretty traditional pilot (introducing characters, a central problem, and an intriguing mystery), the following episodes have atypical start and end points, fluctuating narrative arcs, and sudden shifts in focus.
A lot of that is acknowledged in the storytelling itself, as Alma will comment on the abrupt departure from one topic to another, sometimes steering us back to the original point. In a weird way, it’s like an action movie — except the fights or chase scenes that break up the emotional story are thought experiments or time travel, and Alma can decide for herself if she wants to run with it or go back to what she was doing before being interrupted. This creates a feeling of drifting between stories as much as it blends them together; there’s a murder-mystery, a personal journey of self-fulfillment, and existential queries about what makes a person who they are, all incorporated into 30-minute episodes. Like Alma losing her tether to reality, “Undone” loses momentum while it’s wrestling to work through so much (not to mention while trying to explain itself, which mainly works because of Odenkirk’s dulcet professorial voice).
Odenkirk, who also produces, is the show’s beating heart. His mysterious father figure pokes and prods his daughter into action, as Odenkirk creates an endearing, self-aware know-it-all; a guy who has all the answers, dispenses them as he best sees fit, and yet does so in a way that feels earnest. (Odenkirk shows a particular talent for delivering lines like “try, but don’t try try,” making them believably helpful without feeling condescending.) Meanwhile, Salazar carries the entirety of Alma’s crazy journey with a deft touch and quick wit. She’s a grounding rod and a spark of energy, turning exposition into entertainment without betraying the import of the situation. Salazar taps into Alma on every level, and the lived-in performance helps keep the sci-fi story from feeling too out there.
In case it’s not obvious from the above descriptions, the animation takes nothing away from these immaculate performances. Each actor shines through just as they would in live-action and deserve accolades accordingly. Every level of “Undone” compliments another, which encourages belief that the ending of the series will be as strong as the start. With three episodes left in the first season, much of “Undone’s” commentary on mental illness has yet to fully form, but given the way Purdy and Bob-Waksberg tied similar themes together in “BoJack Horseman” (like the Season 4 masterpiece, “Time’s Arrow,” written by Purdy), it feels like those answers are coming. For now, there’s enough to admire in the way their new series plays with time to blend significant people with significant events, while allowing its characters to reassess both by taking control of their temporal reality — in doing so, the experimental new series finds significance itself.
“Undone” Season 1 premieres Friday, September 13 on Amazon Prime.