Star Rosa Salazar is so good in Amazon’s new animated, existential sci-fi mystery series Undone that I almost want to check out that Alita: Battle Angel movie she was in after all… Almost. Let’s not go crazy here.
Undone is animated in rotoscope style, wherein live actors are filmed and then stylized animation is drawn over them, in the same vein as Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The series is about a mixed-race girl named Alma Winograd-Diaz (Salazar) whose monotonous daily routine is disrupted by a car accident that leaves her briefly comatose. Following that incident (or during it, to be precise), Alma begins seeing visions of her father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who died in a similar car crash years earlier, when she was a little girl.
Jacob had been a theoretical physicist studying the possibility of time travel. As he interacts with the very confused Alma, he insists that his death was no accident and he was murdered for his work. He wants Alma’s help finding out who killed him, and even stopping it from ever happening. He says that Alma’s accident has awakened a latent power within her that will allow her to manipulate the flow of time. Seemingly as evidence of this, Alma finds herself dislodged from our normal perception of time, unmoored from temporal reality as she uncontrollably jumps backward and forward through events in her own life from childhood to present. Jacob says that he can teach her to control this ability, but he seems more concerned with what she can do for him than in helping his daughter deal with the trauma she’s suffered.
Alma’s strange behavior draws concern from her meddling mother (Constance Marie from Switched at Birth), her mostly supportive boyfriend (Siddharth Dhanajay from Patti Cake$), and a sister (Angelique Cabral from Life in Pieces) otherwise preoccupied with her own impending wedding. They’re all naturally worried that she may be mentally ill, but the more bizarre excursions through time and space that she experiences, the more Alma becomes convinced that her father is right and they may be on the verge of unlocking the secrets of the universe. However, will the discovery of a history of schizophrenia in her family undo everything Alma believes she knows about herself?
Verdict / Grade: A
I can hardly say enough good things about Undone. The show deals with very heady, philosophical themes in an approachable manner. It’s smart, often funny, and has characters who are richly-drawn despite the seeming simplicity of the animation style.
I’m not sure that I’m entirely sold on the rotoscoping. Although the animation is at times quite evocative, and facilitates some trippy visual set-pieces that would be difficult and expensive to film in regular live action with CGI visual effects, at other times I found it an annoying affectation and wished I could see the real actors beneath it. Nevertheless, the supporting cast features some familiar faces (Daveed Diggs, John Corbett, and Jeanne Tripplehorn, among others) that are still recognizable through the cartoon veneer.
Rosa Salazar is fantastic in the lead. Her character is troubled, but she’s also clever, sarcastic, and always compelling. She’s an appealing mess, and her relationship with boyfriend Sam is both endearing and feels very real through its complicated ups and downs.
The fact that a genre show like this might be so diverse in its casting without making a big deal about it is also a pleasant surprise.
With just eight episodes that are less than a half-hour long each, Undone is a quick binge, but the series packs a lot of complex ideas, thematic weight, and rich character development into that time. This is one of the best new shows of the year. My only disappointment is that it seems to be a closed-off story at the end and I don’t think we’ll get to see more of it or spend more time with these characters.