Netflix’s BoJack Horseman has been one of the best shows on television since it debuted in 2014. It is a hilarious satire of celebrity and show business, while also being a profoundly sad portrait of depression, loneliness and substance abuse. Virtually the only complaint I’ve ever heard from anyone who’s watched more than the first few episodes is that its visual style is intentionally primitive, bordering on ugly. (And even that allows for elaborate background gags and bizarrely compelling designs of the show’s many animal/human hybrid characters.)
That is not a objection anyone will be making about the new series from BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and writer Kate Purdy. Animated sci-fi drama Undone (release by Amazon last week) was produced with the technique known as rotoscoping, where animators paint over the performances of flesh-and-blood actors using a variety of art styles. Whether we’re watching the show’s troubled heroine Alma (Rosa Salazar) go through the drudgery of her everyday life or seeing her get caught up in something more cosmic, it’s the kind of show that’s so lush and detailed you may be inclined to pause the action just to enjoy the compositions that director Hisko Hulsing and the European animation studio Submarine have created. It’s a marvelous achievement in design and among the most visually stunning things you’ll see on television this year.
But when you look past the gorgeous presentation and into the substance, Undone proves more hit-or-miss. Parts of it absolutely live up to the hypnotic imagery; at other times, the look of the show works overtime covering for a wobbly narrative.
We’ll get into some significant spoilers in a bit (with advance warning for those who haven’t yet had four hours to spare in the time of Peak TV), but the basics are these: Alma is a smart, sarcastic underachiever who tries to keep a distance between herself and her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), mother Camila (Constance Marie) and live-in boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). She and Becca have never really gotten over the car crash death of their father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), a theoretical physicist whose mysterious work died with him when they were kids — until Jacob begins appearing to the adult Alma and convincing her that she has the ability to transport herself through time and space, and even manipulate reality itself.
The eight-episode first season toggles back and forth between the mundane and the miraculous. As the family prepares for Becca’s wedding to the wealthy but bland Reed (Kevin Bigley) and Alma debates whether she wants to stay with Sam (or anyone), Jacob’s ghostly form keeps popping up at inopportune moments to teach her how to use her strange new powers. His plan is to have her travel back to that fateful Halloween night, confirm his suspicion that he was murdered and prevent it from happening.
Bob-Waksberg and Purdy have no control over this (especially given how long animation can take), but Undone has the bad timing to be this year’s second streaming show about a self-destructive woman who discovers that she is caught up in shenanigans with the laws of space-time. It’s not exactly Rotoscoped Russian Doll, but there’s enough overlap — particularly in the second episode, where Alma struggles to escape a time loop — to make me appreciate how much restraint Russian Doll demonstrated in only doing a very brief (and late in the series) attempt to scientifically explain what was happening to Nadia(*). Unfortunately, large swaths of Undone are just Jacob regaling Alma with his theories about time travel, shamans and enlarged brain ventricles. If not for the way the show visually renders her powers, with scenes bleeding or even smashing into one another, they would feel like one of Jacob’s college lectures, droning as his students struggle to avoid looking at their phones.
(*) Other unintentional overlaps: like Fleabag, Camila’s priest, Father Miguel (Tyler Posey) is hot and compares his own conversations with God to the ones Alma seems to be having with her late father; and, like Sundance’s This Close (whose second season premiered the same day Undone‘s first did), this show deals with Alma (who has a Cochlear implant) moving between the deaf world and the hearing one.
But whenever Undone stops theorizing and gets into practical application of Alma’s apparent gifts, it can be really potent. Salazar (who already appeared as an animated version of herself this year in Alita: Battle Angel) is everything the show asks of her: funny and tough and vulnerable and charismatic and compulsively watchable — even in the more A Not-So-Brief History of Time Travel sections. Just as BoJack is so smart and poignant in dealing with depression, Undone is at its sharpest in discussing how we experience trauma and hang onto it. This quality spans something glaring like Jacob’s death and the subtlety of Sam’s difficulty (glimpsed by Alma in her travels) in adapting when his family moved to America when he was a kid. The relationship between the two sisters — Becca the younger one who always has to be the adult, Alma the one who knows what’s best for Becca but acts on that knowledge in toxic ways — is so insightful and moving that the time travel can almost feel like a distraction from the low-concept show Undone might be better off as.
But maybe Undone knows that, too. During one of their trips to the past, Alma ignores what Jacob is trying to show her in favor of analyzing his relationship with his young assistant. “I feel like you’re honing in on the wrong part of this?” he says. When Undone is using Alma’s powers to externalize her emotional struggles, it’s a knockout. When it gets bogged down in theory, or some of the more repetitive aspects — like how often Daveed Diggs’ Tunde tries to fire Alma from her job as a daycare teacher because time travel makes her behavior seem erratic — it can feel like we’re trapped in a loop right along with Alma.
(Full season spoilers follow.)
The season’s penultimate episode takes place on the day of Becca’s wedding. There’s a brief diversion into Jacob’s conspiracy theories, as Alma interrogates Charlie (Brad Hall), an executive who may have played a role in the accident. Charlie laughs off the idea, and Alma realizes she needs to be focused on helping her sister’s big day — even using her powers at one point to undo the ugly moment where she blabs about Becca’s recent infidelity in front of Reed and the entire wedding party. It’s Undone pivoting to the emotional stories that seem to interest it most. Even Alma’s trip to the accident scene reveals a prosaically sad and human explanation for what happened: on the verge of losing his family and (more importantly to him) his career and research, a despondent Jacob decides to run himself and his assistant Farnaz (Sheila Vand) off the road in a murder/suicide. The spectral Jacob seems to change history, but when Alma returns to the present, nothing’s different(*). Sam and Camila are convinced her “powers” are just evidence that she’s schizophrenic, like Jacob and his mother were.
(*) The show’s time travel talk is mostly sober and sincere, but the finale does work in a good joke, when Sam says that in Back to the Future, changes to the timeline take hold instantaneously, prompting the half-Mexican Alma to crack that maybe “time travel works differently for white people.”
A second season would have to deal with the implications of this. How are Becca and Alma’s lives different if their father has been alive all these years? Is the world at large altered? What quest will Alma undertake next? Will Tunde maybe give Alma just one more shot to keep her job? Hopefully, wherever Purdy, Bob-Waksberg and company take the story from here, they’ll concentrate on the palpable emotions of it rather than the dry theorizing.