Tag Archives: Bob Odenkirk

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.

Nebraska (2013)

“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem “The Hollow Men, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Nebraska shows how it works in the United States. While the acclaimed new film by Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne presents itself as being an unvarnished, black and white, realistic, even hyper-realistic examination of a small group of people in the Midwest, it’s best viewed as an allegory about the end of American civilization. The United States, the film tells us, will not go down in flames, consumed by the souls of dead slaves and native Americans who rise up like demons from their graves. Rather, it will simply spin out into tired irrelevance, like the disconnected thoughts of a senile old man.

Woody Grant, played by a time-ravaged Bruce Dern, a retired auto-mechanic living in Billings Montana, has received a letter from Publishers Clearing House informing him that if subscribes to a list of magazines he will be entered into a sweepstakes to win a million dollars. While most of just run this kind of junk mail through the shredder as soon as we get it, Woody, who’s In the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, not only believes that he’s already won, he thinks he has to go personally to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his prize. No longer able to drive, he’s determined to go the 700 miles by foot.. Every day the police find him walking alongside the highway in the middle of Winter. Every day they bring him back to his wife, who remarks that if she had a million dollars, the first thing she would do is put him in a home. Finally David, his 40-year-old son, hoping it will bring him back down to reality, agrees to drive him.

Along the way they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska — I have no idea if it’s a real town or not — where the majority of the film takes place. Hawthorne Nebraska is the end of America. We observe the huge grain silos towering over the sparse, sincere downtown. The beaten up, whitewashed houses, the threadbare decor, the decades old advertisements, it’s a pale fading spirit of a great agricultural and industrial civilization in the memory of an old man.

I sometimes wonder why Americans no longer seem capable of greatness, or even of great evil, why, unlike people in the Middle East or Eastern or Southern Europe, even in the face of an economic disaster, the massive redistribution of wealth to the ruling class, the destruction of families and neighborhoods, the outsourcing of industry to the Third World, we seem incapable of rebelling, of “raging against the dying of the light.” Americans seem determined to go quiet into that good night, to plod along, regimented, obedient, spiritually dead.

During Woody and David’s stay in Hawthorne, as we meet his family, his old friends, and their children, Nebraska suggests a possible answer. We are an old, tired, senile culture. Whether physically young, like Woody’s two obese nephews in their early 30s, or old, like his former lover who runs the local newspaper, we are trapped in a cul de sac, a dead purposeless life we not only can’t escape, but have lost even the desire to escape. Hawthorne Nebraska is a town with a few young people who will never have a real life and a great many old people who remember their childhood as though it were yesterday, mostly because nothing ever came in between it and their senility. Their lives are over, and, yet, they’re still waiting for them to begin. We are in Dante’s antepurgtory, in the absurdist, disconnected chatter of a play by Samuel Beckett.

David, recognizing that Woody’s life is nearing its close, gradually loses the heart to wake him up to reality. What reality? When Woody tells his old friends about his fortune, they convince themselves he owes them money, then decide to believe him. In their various attempts to beg, extort, or demand part of his bonanza, the layers of memory are pealed back. A society is revealed, if not necessarily through its greed, but through the idea that it thinks it should be motivated by greed. None of these people really need the money. None of them really want it. There isn’t much to spend it on in Hawthorne, and none of them have any intention of leaving anyway. When they realize that they have been “duped,” that Woody has duped himself, that they have allowed themselves to be sucked into the illusions of a dying old man, their reaction is predictably cruel and predictably meaningless. After Woody insists to David that they go to Lincoln after all, tries to collect the prize money, and finally realizes the truth himself, it brings no enlightenment, not even a resounding sense of defeat. Winning a million dollars was never much of a dream to begin with. It’s just another day, and Woody is one step closer to death.

“I saw their starved lips in the gloam, with horrid warning gaped wide,” John Keats said in his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. “And I awoke and found me here, on the cold hill’s side.”

Nebraska ends on the cold hill’s side, but for Woody there never even was the dream of a beautiful woman without mercy. We realize that there’s no real difference between being asleep and awake, between reality and illusion. We not only awake on the cold hill’s side, we’ve been there all along.