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Josh Reviews Undone

Amazon’s gorgeous, emotionally rich animated series Undone centers around a young woman named Alma (Rosa Salazar), who feels stuck in the mundane routines of her every-day life.  When her younger sister Becca announces her engagement, Alma begins to spiral into insecurity and frustration and loneliness.  After a car crash — the result of her running through a stop sign — lands her in the hospital, Alma begins seeing visions of her dead father (Bob Odenkirk).  He begins to teach Rosa shamanistic techniques to untether her mind from her linear reality, allowing her to experience different moments in her life and explore her past, and that of her father’s.  Has Alma taken the first steps into connecting with her family’s Nahuatl roots and learned how to see time and the universe in an entirely new way?  Or is this all in her head, and she is sinking into the schizophrenia that destroyed her grandmother?

I adored Undone.  This eight-episode series is a beautiful, complex character study of a deeply broken young woman, and at the same time it is a gloriously mind-bending sci-fi tale.  Both aspects of the series work wonderfully and enhance the other.  The series was created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg and directed by Hisko Hulsing.  (Mr. Bob-Waksberg created Bojack Horseman, and Ms. Purdy was a writer and producer on that show.)

Even without the sci-fi elements, Undone would be a deeply entertaining and moving series.  I loved the way the show slowly and carefully allowed us to peel back the layers of Alma’s personality and history.  Alma is incredibly well-developed as a three-dimensional protagonist.  She is deeply flawed, and the series doesn’t shy away from frankly depicting her poor decisions and upsetting, selfish behavior.  At the same time, the show never condemns her for those choices.  And while in the hands of less-skilled storytellers these choices might have turned off the audience, I found that they only rendered Alma even more interesting and sympathetic a character.  I couldn’t help but connect to how human and real she seemed.  Rosa Salazar’s phenomenal performance was rich and nuanced; she floored me with her work time and again over the course of these eight episodes.

Undone was created through rotoscoped animation.  Actors performed the scenes on a soundstage, and then that footage was used as the basis for the show’s gorgeous animation.  (Click here to read more about the process.)  The result is a unique and dazzlingly beautiful show.  The approach is perfect for executing the show’s regular dips into mind-trips and other brain-bending scenarios.  As co-creator Kate Purdy points out in that article: “We thought the show should be live action [at first]… but then if you shoot it, when the story goes to the trippy or otherworldly places, you’re going to feel that shift.  And we wanted it to feel continuous.  So we were thinking grounded, realistic animation.  Then, when that stretchiness of reality happens, it feels continuous; all of the same world.  Because we don’t want to say, ‘This is true’ or ‘That is true.’  We want to say, ‘We don’t know what the truth is, so let’s look at what truth could be.'”

It’s a brilliant choice that is key to the show’s unique feel.  The oil-painting backgrounds are exquisitely beautiful, and they give the series a very distinct look so different from most other animated series.  I was thrilled by the show’s playful approach to “reality” and the way the animation allowed the show’s narrative to bend and flow in a way that would have been impossible to accomplish in traditional live-action.

I love that the series focuses on a strong trio of women — Alma, her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), and her mother Camila (Constance Marie) — and that these women were Mexican-Americans (with a little Jewish heritage in there, too, courtesy of Alma’s father Jacob).  I was also fascinated to see the show explore the family’s Nahuatl ancestry.  (There’s a mesmerizing sequence in which Alma becomes absorbed watching a Nahuatl dance and realizes that somehow she knows the steps.)  Additionally, I was fascinated by the detail that Alma wears a cochlear implant, and I loved the time the show spent exploring what that’s like for her.  (There are a few times when Alma takes off her implant and suddenly we experience sound — or the lack thereof — the way Alma does naturally.)

I was deeply impressed by the work of both Ms. Cabral and Ms. Marie as Becca and Camila; they both created remarkably memorable and interesting characters in so short a time.  In the best of ways, each character felt like a fully-realized creation who was living their own full life, which we occasionally dipped into.  Bob Odenkirk was magnificent as always in his role as Alma’s dead father Jacob.  Mr. Odenkirk has to carry a heavy expositional load, but he always makes it sound so effortlessly natural.  I also loved David Diggs (Hamilton, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as Alma’s boss at the day-care where she works, and Siddharth Dhananjay as Alma’s chill boyfriend Sam.

Undone asks deep questions about the extent to which we each create our own reality.  Early in the show, we see a happy memory in which a young Alma visited a Nahuatl pyramid and saw an ancient stone pool in the ground.  Her parents explain to her that no one is sure what the pool was for.  Was it a bath-tub or something used for spiritual rituals?  There are several possible narratives.  The entire series is structured to explore the coexistence of multiple possible narratives, as we’re never quite sure whether any of the events of the show are actually happening.  Alma might be an incredibly unreliable narrator.  Is this real, or is this all in her head?  I love the way the series played with both possibilities.  This thematic richness of characters straddling multiple worlds is present throughout the many layers of the show’s narrative, and it elevates and unites so many of the different character threads we are following.  Some examples: Alma is a mostly secular American kid, and we see her efforts at balancing that with her mother’s desire for Alma to accompany her to church, as well as Alma’s later tentative steps into exploring her Nahuatl heritage.  There’s also an intriguing flashback in which we see how Alma’s life changed after she got her cochlear implant, and how the act of getting that implant separated her from the community of deaf kids with whom she used to go to school.

Undone can be very funny at times, and I also loved the way it would occasionally shift into exploring some heady sci-fi concepts.  At the same time, the show is also a serious drama that is concerned with delving into the lasting effects of grief and trauma on a family.  These different aspects of the show sound like that could have been at war with one another, but one of my favorite aspects of the series is how well all of those elements played off of one another.  The emotional moments had an even greater impact because I was so swept up in the series mysteries and mind-bending sci-fi fantasy aspects, and the humor beautifully balanced the tragedy in a way that felt just perfect.

If I have one complaint about this series, it’s that the ending left far more hanging than I had expected.  The final minutes of the series finale had brought Alma — and me, the viewer — to what felt like a moving and melancholy realization… but then the final seconds seemed to pull the rug out from under us, and put all of our questions back on the table.  The series has been renewed for a second season, so I guess they wanted to leave all possibilities open for where the show will go from here.  I can understand that, but I felt those final seconds undermined what had been a very emotional finale.  Still, if that means we get more of this show (as opposed to the series having concluded after these eight episodes), I can’t really complain too much!

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