For Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel), a settled life is the most horrifying thing imaginable, but as Amazon's trippy animated series Undone opens, she is stuck in exactly the rut she fears the most. She has a rewarding job as a daycare worker, she lives with her handsome, clever boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), who worships her, and her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) has just announced her engagement to a wealthy, boring guy. Alma is appalled at the monotony of her pleasant life, and she constantly bickers with Becca and with her old-fashioned Mexican immigrant mother Camila (Constance Marie). She breaks up with Sam mainly because he likes her too much. She's well on her way to upending her entire life even before she gets in a terrible car accident.
Undone is about what happens to Alma after the car accident, which is precipitated by a vision of her dead father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk). When Alma wakes up in the hospital, Jacob is there by her side, explaining that he's helped her unlock her ability to travel through time, and he needs her help to solve his own murder, 20 years earlier. Does Alma really have the power to move back and forth through time and speak to her dead father? Or is she suffering from some combination of brain damage, PTSD and the schizophrenia that plagued her grandmother? That's the series' central question, which it effectively and intriguingly balances over the course of the five episodes (out of eight total) available for review.
The visual style is perfect for that balance between grounded family drama and mind-bending sci-fi. Rotoscoping paints animation over live-action footage of real actors, bringing recognizable, realistic figures into surreal settings. It's been used most notably in the past couple of decades by filmmaker Richard Linklater, who employed rotoscoping for his 2001 philosophical treatise Waking Life and his 2006 Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly. There are echoes of both of those movies in Undone, which takes up serious philosophical questions about the nature of reality, and deals with Phildickian themes of discovering a hidden world just behind the mundane veneer of everyday life. The idea of becoming unstuck in time is one that Dick himself tackled many times.
Created by BoJack Horseman's Raphael Bob-Waksberg and BoJack writer-producer Kate Purdy, Undone dials way back on the anarchic comedy of most adult-targeted animated series (like BoJack), although the sarcastic Alma does offer plenty of snarky commentary. For the most part, it's an earnest sci-fi drama that deals intelligently with difficult family dynamics and the complexities of multiple realities ("Time is a limited form of experience," Jacob tells Alma), affording equal consideration to the everyday and the fantastic. Alma deals with her overbearing mother and her overly perky sister, tries to focus on her job and recommit to her relationship, all while Jacob is busy teaching her about manipulating time and space (he doesn't appreciate her jokes about not being a Jedi).
Salazar, who seems to be making a career of giving performances while being covered in computer effects, is great as Alma, who is funny and likable but also clearly flawed and inconsiderate. Salazar channels a bit of Aubrey Plaza in her performance, but she brings more vulnerability than Plaza typically does, and it's easy to see how insecure Alma is beneath her surface toughness and antagonism. At the same time, pretty much everyone in her life, including her dead dad, is demanding and needy and inconsiderate in their own ways.
One of the most interesting aspects of the series is its characterization of Jacob, who would be a wise, respected mentor figure in a lot of sci-fi narratives, but here he's pushy and often insensitive, more concerned about solving the mysteries of the universe (and his own death) than with his daughter's happiness, or even her sanity. Eventually he admits he was the one who caused Alma's accident, in order to kickstart her abilities.
"I feel like I'm losing my mind," Alma says in the third episode, but she isn't able to lean on anyone close to her for support. Her dad insists that she's completely sane, and that in fact what looked like schizophrenia in her grandmother was a similar ability to shift around in time and space, just without any training or discipline. Alma's mom pushes her to see doctors and take pills, and Becca just wants everything to be perfect and normal for her upcoming wedding. Even Sam, Alma's ostensible partner, can be manipulative and dishonest, although the fourth episode delves more deeply into their relationship and strengthens their partnership.
As Alma is literally torn between two worlds, she's also spent her entire life in those in-between spaces, thanks to her biracial heritage (a Mexican mother with indigenous roots, a white father who's a non-practicing Jew) and her disability, a hearing impairment that afflicted her at age 3 and then was corrected with a cochlear implant several years later. She takes out the implant's external apparatus when she wants to shut out the world, literally turning off all the sound around her. The show integrates all of these various experiences into Alma's character without forcing her to be defined by a single aspect of her identity.
Undone itself is similarly hard to pin down. Its time-loop aspects and sarcastic heroine recall acclaimed Netflix hit Russian Doll, and the short episodes (most around 22 minutes) give it the structure of a typical animated comedy. But the visual style signifies something more serious, and the performances are nuanced and naturalistic. Unpredictable and surprising but never hard to follow, Undone occupies its own unique space among streaming series. It's ethereal and earthy, funny and profound, human and cosmic. And as Jacob points out, it has unlimited worlds yet to explore.
Starring Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie and Siddharth Dhananjay, the eight-episode first season of Undone debuts Friday on Amazon.