You don't often encounter TV as singular and personal as Undone. Amazon's animated drama both looks unique, thanks to its rotoscoped animation, and feels unique, with its esoteric blending of Vonneguttian sci-fi and intimate family drama exploring mental illness, generational trauma, and shamanic tradition. It feels like the arrival of a new TV auteur in Kate Purdy.
Purdy, a writer on BoJack Horseman, co-created Undone with BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who co-writes many of Undone's episodes. But the way the show is put together bears the mark of someone who, by virtue of their particular interests and experiences, sees how a bunch of seemingly disparate pieces can fit together in a way no one else would be able to; it is undeniably Purdy's. TV writers are often advised to sell themselves, and pitch executives on how their biography qualifies them to tell a story, but it's rare that something as specifically personal as Undone makes it to TV. Purdy has talked in interviews about how her own experiences with mental illness led her to exploring shamanism as an alternative to Western medicine, and how her own grandmother Geraldine had schizophrenia. She's also talked about growing up in San Antonio, a cultural melting pot of a city that is almost never depicted in media. All of this is in the show, explored through the journey taken by the character Alma.
Alma, played by Rosa Salazar, is an unhappy, aimless 28-year-old whose relationships with all of her loved ones are strained. Then one day, she sees a vision of her dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), and the shock of it causes her to crash her car. When she comes out of her coma, Alma is still seeing visions of Jacob, and he tells Alma she has "one foot in the world of the dead and one in the world of the living. And you're communicating with me through some sort of spirit realm, and the accident has shaken your temporal understanding of time and space and somehow given you the ability to see things in a non-linear fashion." You know, that thing.
Jacob says he's going to train Alma in how to use her newly discovered ability, because he needs her to help him solve his murder. But the way that Alma is now caught between the world of the living and the dead creates even more conflict with her mother (Constance Marie), her sister (Angelique Cabral), her boss (Daveed Diggs), and her boyfriend (Siddharth Dhananjay). Straddling two worlds is not new to Alma — her mother is Mexican and her father is Jewish, and she hears with a cochlear implant, which puts her between the deaf and hearing worlds — but the severity of her current situation is. Like Billy Pilgrim, she's become unstuck in time, and Alma moves rapidly and unexpectedly through the present, the past, and hallucinations in liminal space.
If this all sounds like a lot, it is. But the extraordinary animation makes Undone a joy to look at. At a screening for critics during TCA this summer, Salazar compared the animation to candy they use to lure viewers into the van of the heavy story, an apt metaphor that made Amazon representatives amusingly uncomfortable. Undone is animated using a process called rotoscoping, where live-action footage is painted over. They shot the actors in essentially a black box theater and then sent the footage to be rotoscoped at Minnow Mountain, an animation house in Austin. From there it went to Amsterdam to be hand-painted under the supervision of director Hisko Hulsing. Rotoscoping is rare enough — the only well-known fully rotoscoped movies are Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly — but Undone goes even further. The rotoscoped footage is layered atop oil-painted backdrops. Hulsing and a team of nine artists painted over 800 paintings for use in the show. The artistic achievement of the animation alone is a remarkable feat.
But Undone would be a mere curiosity without the strength of Purdy and Bob-Waksberg's writing and Salazar's performance. Between this and Alita: Battle Angel, Salazar has become the queen of motion capture, and her performance of Alma is soulful, complex, and funny. She has a mischievous quality — a bleating laugh here, a playful comment there — that makes Alma fun to hang out with even when she's being selfish or insolent or cruel.
Undone is one of the best shows of the year, an extraordinary union of style and substance. It's an awe-inspiring and impressive first series from Kate Purdy that establishes her as a major talent to watch.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Undone is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.