[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
It seems like one of the biggest hurdles in telling a story that plays with time and space isn’t the nightmare of logistics or coming up with the specific rules that make your version of a story work. It’s pinpointing the tiny details and phrases that take on some profound, mystical meaning when they get repeated over and over again.
In “Undone,” one of those things is a set of keys. Tossed on a table, disappeared, grabbed from sight and reappearing again. They’re just some keys, but the storytelling power of this show is in taking something so simple and make it feel like it has the power to unlock something more than the door of a car or an apartment.
It helps that the show is rendered in rotoscoped animation. (Here’s more on the animation process, which involved fashioning entire environments from a minimalist, set-free live action starting point.) It’s a perfect stylistic choice to represent the world of Alma (Rosa Salazar), who awakes from the aftermath of an accident to find her dead father (Bob Odenkirk) enlisting her help. It’s merely the opening into of a gorgeous, tangled dreamscape that blends her memories, his memories, and Alma’s unfolding present. (To borrow the immortal words of a beloved holiday figure, it’s something of a cosmic gumbo.)
On this canvas, “Undone” is able to blend together a family drama, a murder mystery, and a comedy around an impending wedding. Alma’s sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) is getting married, making for a convergence of two siblings facing their own massive life changes. Even with the dimension-hopping tension that comes with one of them staring down marriage and the other trying to master the past, there’s a playfulness that runs through “Undone.” Part of that is the show’s pedigree, created by “BoJack Horseman” veterans Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg. It’s also in the way that director Hisko Hulsing bridges present-day San Antonio and a galactic conception of time with some fantastical flourishes.
The idea of control dominates so much of “Undone.” For someone who often feels powerless to make changes in her own life, the idea that Alma’s dad presents to her — that reality is fungible — seems appealing. Though different in visual style and with a much different protagonist at the center, “Undone” still has that potent “BoJack” mix of occasional whimsy and inescapable consequences. Here, the allure of answers and a prospect at a second chance aren’t without their price. Watching Alma discover that in real time is when this show is at its strongest.
Alma’s also discovering the ground rules for this alternate perception of time that her dad is putting forth. The interplay between Salazar and Odenkirk is really special, and the way that they develop such an easy, esoteric shorthand is another key anchor for “Undone.” With that as a foundation, the show can really play around with representing how the human consciousness works. Connections between places and shapes melt into each other. Collages of conversations fold in on themselves across years. “Undone” pairs some efficient “how we got here” moments with the slightest bit of artistic heightening to match its own chosen form. (Something as small as tracing the lit end of a cigarette through the air ends up being as key to the atmosphere of the show as Alma floating through and out of a disassembled sedan.)
“That’s the beauty of experimentation. You can try and try until you get it right,” Odenkirk’s character says at one point late in the eight-episode season. The thrill of this show is that it keeps that feeling of exploration, all while being delivered with the sure hand of people who know how present a world of their own creation. Amazon renewed “Undone” for a Season 2 back when the show premiered. Here’s hoping the wait isn’t long before we can see what other discoveries are in store.
Pair It With: For a more technical dissection of how we perceive the passage of time (and one that’s surprisingly accessible!), try world-renowned Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli’s book “The Order of Time.” With a lifetime of study and theoretical parsings to back it up, Rovelli puts forth the idea that time is an approximation at best. If it’s still all a little too much to take in, try the audiobook, hypnotically narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch. (You’ll never hear the phrase “time cones” the same way again.)
Other Fans: It’s best read after watching the entire season, but Sonia Saraiya’s Vanity Fair interview with Purdy and Bob-Waksberg also explores the personal and spiritual connections present in the series, particularly in the way “Undone” addresses Alma’s mental health throughout her pursuit of a constructed reality.