Undone: Animation for traumatised adults
Undone is a new eight-part series created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and writer Kate Purdy, both of BoJack Horseman fame, and there are some mild thematic overlaps: our protagonist Alma (Rosa Salazar) is smart but disaffected, plagued with ennui, and adept at identifying and then exploiting the neurosis and failings of those closest to her. Like BoJack, Alma also has a self-destructive streak wrapped in a churlish sense of humour.
That’s where the similarities end, though. Alma isn’t a celebrity, she’s not part animal, she lives in San Antonio, Texas, rather than California, and instead of her tale being told via the rudimentary animation of BoJack’s world, it’s lavishly rotoscoped (the process of drawing or painting over individual film frames, a technique popularised by films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly).
The rotoscoping makes the casts’ performances feel more realistic and nuanced, while simultaneously enabling elaborate, mind-bending dream-like sequences. Many of these sequences revolve around scenes with Alma’s late father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who starts appearing to her in the wake of a car accident, and suggests that she’s able to bend space and time.
It may sound a little sci-fi, but Undone’s biggest drawcard is its handling of themes like coming to terms with trauma, the nature of memory, the complexities of familial and romantic relationships and other sometimes painfully real adult experiences. Introducing time travel into a narrative is always a recipe for plot problems, but Undone is so thoughtful and pretty that it doesn’t really matter when the story goes off the rails a little.
We’re not sure Undone would be as effective were it presented as live-action alone, but because it’s such a treat for the eyes (and only four hours long in total), it’s easy to recommend, even in an era where there are so many shows to choose from.
Early on we learn that Alma had a cochlear implant as a child, and she uses her ability to remove her hearing apparatus to tune out the world when she needs to. It’s a very literal depiction of Alma’s desire to disconnect from reality as she wrestles with her trauma in the wake of her accident and the difficult relationships she has with her mother Camila (Constance Marie), sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay).
Mental health aside, Undone feels timely thanks to its consideration of disability, gas-lighting, immigration, indigenous cultures, and because of its escapable overlaps with recent shows like Russian Doll (a series of narrative loops in the second episode feel cut from the same cloth as Natasha Lyonne’s recent star turn).
Despite daringly blending together seemingly disparate topics like quantum entanglement and shamanism – sometimes with mixed success, as some of the father-daughter scenes lack focus – Undone succeeds because it manages to be so frank about the importance of relationships, and the sacrifices of self we have to make for real connections with other people, while being so visually fantastic.
We’re not sure Undone would be as effective were it presented as live-action alone, but because it’s such a treat for the eyes (and only four hours long in total), it’s easy to recommend, even in an era where there are so many shows to choose from. It’s unclear whether it’ll get a second season, but it’s equally unclear that it needs one.
That might be the best thing about the current state of TV’s renaissance: great stories like Undone can be told without the usual constraints to form demanded by advertisements or executives, the cliffhangers of old needed to ensure viewers returned the following week, or the fear of tackling heady subjects meaningfully.
From its first minutes, Undone feels like a labour of love on the part of the writers, cast and especially the animators. If you like your drama thoughtful and your cinematography considered and beautiful, it’ll be hard not to plough through in a single sitting. You may want to keep some tissues in reach, though.