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Undone Season 1 Review

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.

The Labor Omnimarket

I’m a writer by temperament. Left to my own devices, most of what I do is sit around, take notes in books, and write. I have a degree in journalism which I’ve never used for a job except a two week gig with a local newspaper that was transitioning to digital and was being run by a woman whose background was in online marketing. She decided after I’d done the work that I’d “broken the contract” because I turned in an article an hour late and never paid me. The article was on a Halloween “Witch Walk” event where middle aged women walked around drinking in witch hats. I forget what the exact quotes I got were. Something like “I’m drunk and I’m wearing a hat.”

It was, of course, very hard to take seriously.

Much of what was taught in the Baruch journalism program was a combination of internet marketing techniques and weird brain-dead paeans to the infallibility and wondrous prestige of the New York Times, where many of my professors had worked at varying points. They were scared people, incredibly insecure they weren’t “real” writers, whatever that means. They kept showing us Edward R. Murrow videos to show the shift in broadcast journalism. I’d read Marshall McLuhan, Chomsky, Neil Postman, and Robert W. McChesney by that point. It was a big waste of time and most of the time they would let me just skip classes to go to the library. The school did have an excellent library, with extensive inter-library loan services.

I came out of college into a non-existent job market. Journalism as a thing someone can make a living on just isn’t there anymore. The advertisers have figured out how to control the content in a manner more insidious than the classic narrative of the evil guy with a cigar telling the plucky lady in the movie to kill the story. The pay-per-click creates an environment for the writer where their primary editors are Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Bizarre nonsense stylistics dictated by computers, or the highly coveted demographic of readers who like to read endless, support group style restatements of the same story.

The professors claimed over and over again that strict stylistic guidelines yielded more “truth.” This is, of course, just Taylorization in its prose form-text must be “efficient”, “simple”, “broken down”. It saves more time later on when the consumer does his part in the assembly line of the culture. The lesson being that “truth” itself is just a shifting style guide.

Marx pointed out that chattel slavery was phased out in favor of the wage slavery of the factories because the latter was more efficient for the employer/plantation owner. The employer didn’t have to provide housing or maintenance for the thing he was buying, and could return it any time if he wasn’t satisfied.

The contemporary bourgeoisie wants one better.

Some of you might remember my soda fountain of babel that could fabricate soda flavors endlessly and was only limited by the imagination of the person ordering the soda. Soda though is something that’s mostly consumed by poor people. The bourgeoisie define themselves as consumers in their purchase of labor.

The Amazon style “everything store” of labor is a thing the logistics of which are being bitterly fought over. What’s not controversial is that it resembles/is a temp agency and feudalism in almost equal measures. The website for Triple Crown Consulting, an “HR and staffing firm” sums up the manifest destiny of the future (present?) labor market quite concisely on their home page: “We deliver the technical consultant and direct hire talent you need to aggressively compete in an ever-changing economy.” But even here, there’s a missing part-the most advanced model is the firm as temp agency for itself.

Uber, which claims their employees are “independent” so as to avoid the burdens of upkeep and legal liabilities that come with having traditional employees, is probably the most prominent example. They represent a post-industrial feudalism based around land rent paid for the “real estate” of their website and app. Amazon’s “independent sellers” work similarly. Examples are everywhere.

The cheap day laborers that stand outside Home Depot or Lowes are so ubiquitous as to pretty much be part of the stores themselves at this point. What the internet presents the consumer is the possibility of pure product unencumbered by the unreliable variable of human interaction. As media are extensions of man, some media are recursive extensions of other media. The screen is an extension of the checkout counter to make the person on the other side not a person and therefore able to be controlled and endlessly duplicated. The physical products themselves are increasingly being moved out to warehouses that no one sees except the exploited labor who pull things out of them to be shipped to buyers.

I wonder how far off we are from just having all the temp workers and day laborers themselves stored in giant warehouses waiting to be bought, or more likely, rented like Zipcars. The decentralized labor camp. The omnitemp agency. To some extent, the rudiments of this already exist in a primitive form in the Mechanical Turk. Perhaps this is the more advanced form; the company doesn’t even have to house them in bunks and the workers are invisible and only paid when, in the vague language of the Turk homepage “the employer/”requester”) is satisfied with the results”.

So we progress from the chattel slave to the wage slave to the Turk.

Most writing and journalism work out there at the moment resembles Mechanical Turk except that Mechanical Turk probably pays out sometimes. My professors were right to be nostalgic. They were looking at a dead thing.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.