The team behind the scenes of the instant classic Bojack Horseman have introduced their new show, an experimental series using rotoscoped animation to explore the line between magic and mental illness. There’s a lot to like here, though much like Bojack, it takes a while to get going and fully reveal its direction.
First, a summing up of the plot: A woman named Alma is in a car accident and her father, a theoretical physicist who died in a mysterious car accident in 2002, starts appearing to her in visions. In these visions he tells her that she has been gifted with incredible powers to not only travel through time, but to change it. He claims that his car accident was a murder and tasks her with solving the murder and going back in time to stop it from occurring. Over the course of the series we are also introduced to her sister, her mother, and her boyfriend, all of whom become increasingly worried by her behavior, which resembles the symptoms of schizophrenia.
The first and most obviously challenging decision the show makes is to never resolve whether or not Alma is in fact mentally ill. This ambiguity isn’t a new thing for TV and movies and in fact it resembles the repeated themes of another ascendant TV auteur-Bryan Fuller, creator of Wonderfalls and Hannibal, two other shows where individuals are possessed by visions that problematize their sanity and lead them places they otherwise would never go. In particular Wonderfalls seems like a clear earlier reference point-a woman who works in a gift shop at Niagra Falls starts to see and hear inanimate objects talking to her and telling her to do things. They lead her on adventures and ultimately she does good things by listening to the objects despite the fact we’re never told whether she’s ill or clairvoyant.
Another obvious reference point is the Twin Peaks miniseries that aired a few years ago, particularly the final episode (spoilers ahead.) In the finale, Agent Dale Cooper somehow goes back in time thinking he can save Laura Palmer from being killed by her father but finds himself in a timeline with no Laura Palmer; his attempts to redeem the past by changing it does nothing; the chronology of time as experienced by the mind is non-linear. What happens in the future changes the past, or at least the imagined history-after all, history is, as it has famously been said, a lie agreed upon. But a lie must contain inconsistencies-a lie wants to live its own truth, and wants to do so in the present, where history must exist because no other moment can exist as anything besides recollection or projection.
Common to all these shows and many others, probably because of the frightening ambiguity faced by the US right now, is ultimately exploring our own uneasy feelings of being unsure whether we’re at the edge of a cliff or the top of a mountain and our lack of ideas what to do in either case. Alma’s trips into the past, slowly revealing details of her father’s own struggle with schizophrenia, don’t stabilize her or trigger catharsis. She just escalates the eccentricity of her behavior. The fact we open on the car accident also seems to suggest the two traumas-her car accident and the sudden loss of her father-are intertwined and that in fact she may be revisiting the familiar trauma of her parental loss to escape the unresolved trauma of her accident. At the same time, when she does travel into the past then references what she sees in the future, the accuracy of the details are confirmed.
The essence of trauma as a psychological phenomena is the confusion of the mind between the desire to “become whole” again, i.e. to revert before the moment of destabilization, and to move forward and grow, your only actual path that involves motion. In some sense, the experience of trauma and the repetitive quality that marks it could be rephrased as “the inability to accept the necessity of the present.” And in some sense, this inability to accept the necessity of the present implies the desire for non-existence, given that in order for things to be, that which has been must have been. Dale Cooper makes Laura Palmer not exist paradoxically by saving her; in the season 1 finale of Undone, Alma sits waiting for her (possibly imagined) father to emerge from Mexican ruins. In Undone, Alma’s sister tells her her problems and Alma simply replies that once she brings their father back from the dead, those problems and most of the things that mark her day to day life in the present will be erased. Alma looks excited at the prospect. Her symbolic act to access the truth of the moment of their father’s death is tossing her body at a mirror, breaking it-destruction of the image as symbolic suicide. Like many in the US right now, she’s not sure exactly what she wants but she knows it isn’t this.
The animation is well done but pretty textbook rotoscoping-people who’ve seen either of Richard Linklater’s two adventures into the form, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, will know what to expect here. At the same time, I think the dreaminess it adds to the proceedings justify the decision and make it seem at least like a progression more than strictly a reimagining of Fuller’s preoccupations. I don’t think Fuller is up to anything right now, maybe they should add him to the writers room. Him, Bob-Waksberg and Katy Purdy could form a TV super group and travel through time together exploring the nature of trauma.
The acting is uniformly strong. Bob Odenkirk turns in strong work here as the dead father which…there’re only so many ways you can say the guy’s a genius. The guy’s a genius. Rosa Salazar, who I don’t remember seeing in anything before this, does an exceptional job portraying Alma’s slow transformation into either a shaman or dangerously unstable individual, and does a particularly exceptional job conveying the unease that comes with those closest to you betraying your trust for fear you might hurt yourself. These situations are never portrayed as obvious-both sides are acting rationally given what they know.
The development of the plot makes it unclear where they could go from here; I look forward to the second season but when I try to think about what it could consist of once the season ending cliffhanger is resolved, I come up with a blank. But I guess that’s why they’re writing the show and I’m not.
Well worth checking out.