‘It feels like a mushroom trip’: this cult sci-fi comedy is a phenomenal TV treat | Television

Kate Purdy sits upright, bespectacled and sensibly dressed, in a room containing an intimidatingly vast writing desk, completely unaware of how excited I am to see her. The second season of Undone, the mind-bending mental illness sci-fi comedy drama she co-created with BoJack Horseman’s Raphael Bob-Waksberg, has just come out on Amazon Prime. A few weeks ago, I was emailed a preview screener and clicked on it out of idle curiosity. I devoured the first episode. Then the second. At some point during the third, I missed a work deadline. But I carried on gulping down the episodes, slackjawed with amazement.

Because, while I liked Undone’s first season, the second is phenomenal. Every element has been honed to the point of high art. The jokes are funnier. The dramatic lurches are braver. The visuals – rotoscoped and fluid – are even more breathtaking than before. It somehow manages to be several things at once. It’s an exploration of mental health that plays out like a crime procedural. It’s a meditation on the psychic wounds left by decades of generational trauma, but it’s also a wisecracking, globetrotting romp. Almost as soon as our Zoom conversation begins, I start babbling about how quickly I gobbled the season up.

“It’s funny you say that,” Purdy says. “Raphael always says this is the longest meal prep of all time. You work for two and a half years, then people can watch the whole thing in six hours.”

Like many other shows returning of late, for obvious reasons, Undone has been off our screens for three years, which means a recap might be in order. In the first season, Alma, a young woman played by Rosa Salazar, realises that she can manipulate time and uses this skill to investigate the circumstances of her father’s death. However, it is never made clear whether Alma’s time manipulation is actually happening, or whether it is simply a manifestation of her mental illness.

Without spoiling the plot, the second season manages to embrace and abandon the premise, with Alma dragging her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and father (Bob Odenkirk) along for the ride, which means it feels noticeably lighter. “There are a lot more high jinks this time,” Purdy nods. “And you know, Rosa and Angelique are so fun together and play off each other so well. There’s a mystery with mom, so let’s poke around and get nosy. It almost feels like they’re two young detectives. And then it goes deeper and deeper.”

‘Noticeably lighter in tone’ … Bob Odenkirk in his role as Alma’s father.
‘Noticeably lighter in tone’ … Bob Odenkirk as Alma’s father. Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Undone came into being after Purdy was tasked with writing Downer Ending, the standout episode of BoJack Horseman’s first season. In the episode, Horseman, a talking cartoon horse, enters a state of consciousness where he sees all the life paths he could have taken, along with all the opportunities he was denied due to his rampant egotism. “I brought a lot of myself to that episode,” Purdy says. “And I brought in Carl Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus and showed Raphael various images. After that he was like: ‘There’s more here. Figure out a show where we take some of this and explore it.’”

Again, this caused Purdy to dig deep into her own life. “My grandmother was schizophrenic,” she says. “And there is depression and anxiety that runs through the family in addition to schizophrenia, and it’s something that my father never wants to talk about. The one thing he has told me was that one time he was watching Howdy Doody with his brother and sister, and his mom shoved the broom handle through the television set. So that is woven into the show. We go back to that moment over and over again, because I want to unpack that. I want to know more. That’s part of the exploration for me.”

A day prior to our conversation, Netflix released the second season of Russian Doll. By total chance, it covers a lot of the same ground as Undone, in that it’s about a woman bending reality in an attempt to heal generational trauma. Having seen them both, I’d say Undone nails the assignment with much more panache and commitment.

I wonder what happened to make everyone reflect on familial trauma, I say to Purdy. Perhaps the insular experience of lockdown gave people room to explore it. She smiles. “I mean, I think I’m a little more woowoo, to be honest.”

Go on. “My perspective is that I really believe that we have an ancestry, and those ancestors are spirits who are guiding us and helping us,” she says. “And part of that is a collective experience. Dreams and meditative states help us touch into this deep pool of information and wisdom that is helping to guide us.”

‘I like genre-bending’ … Undone’s creator Kate Purdy.
‘I like genre-bending’ … Undone’s creator Kate Purdy. Photograph: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

What’s fascinating about Purdy is the circuitous route she took to Undone. Her first job writing for TV was on the long-forgotten Jerry Bruckheimer procedural Cold Case, after which she jumped to the sketch show MADtv and Courteney Cox’s sitcom Cougar Town, which in turn led to BoJack Horseman. Happily, she says all of these stepping stones have helped to inform Undone.

“I was watching a documentary about Georgia O’Keeffe, who actually spent a lot of time learning to paint in other people’s styles until she discovered her own style and voice. And I felt like: ‘Oh, that’s been my process,” she says. “But it was really good for me to have that experience. The practice of plotting a crime drama is something that is implemented on Undone. And sketch was really useful as a tool, because you have to come up with five ideas that are really strong every week, and then you have to write those within a week. That was its own training ground.”

Undone is something you have to see to properly understand. And that’s great for viewers seeing the finished product, but getting it commissioned must have been a nightmare. Was it hard to pitch a rotoscoped comedy about generational trauma that exists in the liminal space between reality and dreams? Purdy laughs. “We wrote the first two episodes, and Amazon said: ‘We love it. It’s really fun. It feels like you’re on a mushroom trip. But what is this show?’ And so they ordered a third episode to get proof of concept. So we wrote it and they said: ‘OK, great. We love the third episode. But what is this show?’”

The second season of Undone is such an incredible achievement – and so intensely personal – that it feels destined to be the thing Purdy is remembered for. But fond memories of a cultish streaming show don’t exactly pay the bills, which might be why she already has one eye on the future. She recently signed a deal with Amazon to keep making new content.

“The things I’m excited to explore range from lighter teen comedy films with these important themes that are important to me woven through them,” she says when I ask what the future may hold. “But then other half-hour shows that are deeper, even into the sci-fi elements in terms of slipping reality,” she says. “I like genre-bending. I like feeling like we don’t have to stay in one tone if we make the shift elegantly. And I like always having a bit of humour that plays against the drama.”

Whether intentionally or not, she just perfectly described Undone. What a treat this show is.

Undone is on Amazon Prime now

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