Television

Time Travel Is Close to Madness in the Mind-Bending Undone

BoJack Horseman alums launch a new series about grief, heritage, and mental illness.

Two female characters stand outside as the sky appears to shatter in a still from Undone.
Undone.
Amazon.

The ambivalence at the heart of Undone, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy’s gorgeously hallucinatory existential cartoon, is perhaps one that should be considered by more superpowered characters. After a catastrophic car accident, 28-year-old Alma Winograd-Diaz (voiced by Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar) starts communicating with her dead and dearly missed father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk). A professor of theoretical physics during his lifetime, Jacob attempts to tap his elder daughter’s latent potential for manipulating reality so she can go back in time and prevent his death. Or, just as likely, Alma is experiencing the onset of schizophrenia, a disease not unknown in her family. Combined with her tendencies toward anger and isolation, her conversations with her father—that is, the symptoms of her possible mental illness—strain her already tense relationships with her controlling mother, Camila (Constance Marie), and conformist sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral). Alma isn’t sure which reality is true, but she knows which she prefers.

Now streaming via Amazon Prime, Undone hails from the creator of BoJack Horseman (Bob-Waksberg) and the writer of one of its best episodes (Purdy, “Time’s Arrow”), but the rotoscoped series looks nothing that show’s animal-stuffed, Hockney-hued Hollywood. Undone’s San Antonio is part indie-film drab, part sun-drenched border town, with manicured suburban landscapes sometimes giving way to the middle of the woods or the profound blankness of space. (The characters were animated via rotoscoping—a technique that conserves many of the actors’ micro-expressions—with oil paintings supplying much of the background scenery.) The splendor of the visuals alone warrants a recommendation for the season, which clocks in at an economical three hours divided into eight installments, as does the complex luster of Salazar’s performance, which ranks as one of the year’s best. But Undone also offers a family portrait that won’t stop shifting, a romance that inspires swoons and squirms in equal measure, a consideration of race and disability that resembles none I’ve ever encountered, and a second exploration of trauma from BoJack compatriots this year that stuns with its sensitivity.

Those achievements make the time-travel storyline, however beautifully imagined, feel less developed in comparison. We’re never made privy to the nature of Alma’s powers or how she hones them—and I never found myself wondering, because I didn’t really care. My indifference probably speaks to a deficiency in the writing, but it’s also clear that, in Alma’s case, with great power comes great irresponsibility. In contrast to a straightforward tale of newfound gifts, it’s not her journey toward strength that’s most compelling, but the emotionally convenient trek away from those who care for her most.

That’s in large part due to the series’ thorny, entrenched, and wholly understandable family dynamics. Alma’s visits through time give her a reason to disengage from her interpersonal struggles—nothing about the present matters, explains her dad, if she can simply remake reality. But the perspective outside herself also allows her to respond to her boundary-ignoring mother or painfully basic sister without her default snark or surliness. With Becca’s impending marriage to a white man whose family sniffs that their interracial coupling isn’t exactly “traditional,” Alma’s travels to the past also provide her with occasions to reconnect to her Mexican roots in ways she couldn’t have envisioned before.

Alma has a cochlear implant, whose speech processor she removes whenever she wants to tune out the rest of the world, most frequently her almost-good-enough boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). The implant, too, serves as a potent metaphor for the family’s torn attitudes toward assimilation. Jacob can’t imagine why anyone would want to compromise their individuality, but as a straight white man, he enjoys a benefit of the doubt that no other member of his family is offered. Jacob’s appearance-obsessed wife, on the other hand, is the kind of Latina who wants others to know that her heritage is “mostly Spanish”—though less out of personal bias, she says, than fear that her daughters will endure the prejudice more often borne by darker-skinned Latinx groups. Alma is her father’s daughter, railing against capitalism and the whitewashed history of the Alamo between sips at the bar, though she’ll let up on her lefty critiques and suspicion of institutions to attend an Easter service if it’s her mom’s turn to light the paschal candle. (Pop culture rarely offers stories about contemporary Latinx lives with this much cultural specificity—a probable product of the Latinx contributions in the show’s writers’ room.) But Alma is her mother’s daughter too, or will be if Camila has any say. One of the reasons Camila fights so hard for the implant is that she can’t abide the possibility that her elder child will never hear her mother speak Spanish to her.

At the start of Undone, Alma is convinced that she and her sister are both irreparably damaged by their father’s death—a conviction she self-fulfillingly demonstrates by orchestrating a hookup between Becca and a bartender soon after Becca’s engagement. But is Alma messed up because she’s messed up, or is she messed up because she’s convinced she’s messed up? And how much of a pass on her own avoidant and judgmental behavior is she willing to give herself because she’s convinced there has to be something more—maybe even supernaturally more—than the difficult, never-ending work of being a good person? Alma hopes her answers are written in the stars, but she knows better than to ignore the ones closer to home.