[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
“Tear Along the Dotted Line” fits more into its first 15 minutes than pretty much any other animated TV series could. For a show with the overall feel of a memoir, it’s one of the clearest examples of how tapping directly into someone’s brain can work. The whole six-episode season is narrated by Zero, an illustrator filled with angst about…pretty much everything. He’s concerned about finding a job, keeping up with friends, making wrong impressions, obsessing over childhood memories, and finding a sense of purpose in his life.
It doesn’t help that all of these anxieties manifest themselves in the form of a giant orange armadillo, who wavers between parroting his own insecurities and calling him out on his self-obsession. The show hops between past and present in chapter-like segments, bouncing between personal observations, grade school anecdotes, and the ongoing exploits between him and three of his close friends.
The first two-thirds of the season barrel forward like a high-speed train, taking strong advantage of the medium. This isn’t a show that plays out in real time with some imaginary cutaways. The whole thing is an organic swirl of id bubbling under the surface as Zero stews inside his apartment and makes his way across the streets of Rome. Historical figures speak in cutout quotations, anger rises from beneath the Earth’s surface, and Zero hops between worlds for seconds at a time.
“Tear Along the Dotted Line” is marked by the very specific potent combination of an imaginative mind left to its own devices. No detail is too small to spin out a cascade of hypotheticals, as Zero connects flirty text messages to Plato’s Cave, imagines the clutter in his living room as warring factions, and wonders if he might be more helpful to the society of a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
Zerocalcare wrote and directed the series, adapting it from his graphic novels, but there’s also a standup streak in “Tear Along the Dotted Line.” The specific and the relatable merge as Zero talks about being confronted with ways you’ve misjudged your own past. As Zero starts to shift the focus from himself (however slightly), the show overall starts to ramp down the speed.
Some may see the combination of Zero’s solipsism and the multiple people trying to snap him out of it as the show having it both ways. Regardless, there’s still an incredible amount of energy in that self-awareness. In a way, this is an animated companion piece to “Man Seeking Woman,” the FX show that took one man’s romantic misadventures and spun them off into similar sketch-like premises. It took that series until its third season to lock into what it did best, when it took all its creative verve and made some equal footing for someone else besides the main character.
There may be a Season 2 for “Tear Along the Dotted Line” at some point, given that this structure isn’t fully indebted to one moment in time. But as the frenetic early pace becomes something more somber, there’s a bigger idea about what’s holding this all together. (The “dotted line” becomes more than something in an enigmatic title.) If there’s a grand lesson in “Tear Along the Dotted Line,” it’s that Zero shouldn’t need a grand lesson to look beyond his own experiences. That’s a tricky sentiment to get across when that main character is talking directly to the audience half the time, but it’s one that this show embraces in an enthusiastic way.