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Amazon's 'Undone' Is Everything Streaming TV Should Be

It is weird, singular, and would never exist on any TV network. Thankfully, Amazon took the chance.

by River Donaghey
Sep 13 2019, 5:09pm

Image courtesy of Amazon

Way back in 2017, Jeff Bezos ordered the original series team at Amazon to find him his own Game of Thrones-style tentpole—a massive, blockbuster show with global appeal. But in the years since then, Amazon Prime Video has gone, uh, a very different direction. Sure, the streaming service has dumped a huge amount of money into a Lord of the Rings series and an adaptation of Obama's favorite sci-fi book, but the shows that Amazon has produced lately have been way weirder (and better) than anything that could be considered Game of Thrones-y.

Forever was bizarre but compelling. Homecoming was low-key brilliant. Comrade Detective was a glorious fever dream. Even the ones that crash and burn, like Nicolas Winding Refn's Too Old to Die Young, are worth watching, just to marvel at the fact that they can exist in 2019. But now, finally, Amazon's willingness to take wild swings on creator-driven shows has given birth to Undone, one of the best shows of the current streaming era—and it could never get made on network TV.

Even the show's sell alone is enough to send any self-respecting NBC exec running for the safety of a police procedural. Undone is a psychedelic sci-fi series following an aimless twenty-something named Alma who, after a bad car accident, wakes up in the hospital to find herself unstuck in time.

Oh! And her dead father is there, trying to teach her how to control her time-traveling tendencies so she can save his life in the past. Oh! And maybe the whole sci-fi conceit isn't real, it's just a result of Alma's mental illness. Oh! And the whole show is rotoscoped—meaning it's shot with real actors and then meticulously traced and animated, using hundreds upon hundreds of original oil paintings as backgrounds. Still with us? Great!

This is not a show made for mass-market audiences. The whole thing feels like Michel Gondry trying to adapt Valis for the small screen. It's Slaughterhouse-Five set in present day San Antonio; it's A Wrinkle in Time if we weren't sure if whole story was real or a schizophrenic delusion. By the end of the fourth episode, the whole series transforms into an allegory for creating healthy relationships with our feelings and the lingering effects of generational trauma on our subconscious states, and... yeah, it's a lot. But, miraculously, it works.

Undone's success isn't all that surprising, given the talent behind it. The series stars Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel as Alma, with Bob Odenkirk as her kinda-sorta-but-not-really-dead father, and both deliver pitch-perfect performances, even through the fog of animation. The whole thing was co-created by BoJack Horseman mastermind Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, producer and one-time BoJack writer.

"We thought the show should be live action [at first]," Purdy told the New York Post in a recent interview. "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.'"

Purdy and Bob-Waksberg have experimented with similar fractured storytelling in that gutting dementia episode of BoJack, "Time's Arrow," but he and Purdy take the narrative form to even greater heights in Undone. It's a brilliant show, but between its slow-burn pilot and the visual onslaught of the animation, a lot of viewers probably won't make it past the setup. Undone is not for everyone, but that's exactly what makes it great.

The series is a promise of what the age of streaming could be: a beautiful, strange, and singular piece of art that cares more about its individual integrity than broad appeal. As Disney+ gears up to give us an endless stream of familiar franchise garble and Netflix cans its best shows in favor of whatever boring junk Weiss and Benioff want to do, we should be happy that Undone exists. It may not be a sign of the future of TV, but it should be.