Undone TV series

In many ways, Comic-Con is often all about betting on a sure thing. Fans will line up hours, if not days, in advance to guarantee being in the room to see something related to a film series or TV show they love. So what about the newcomers? The fresh projects that snatch up real estate between the big dogs, hoping to hog the crowds at the right moment to convince the hordes that this is the next thing they’re going to love, this is the next thing they’ll line up in advance to see?

Very often, these shows simply vanish. But occasionally, you see something that instantly and immediately feels special. That was very much the case with Amazon’s Undone, an animated series that, quite frankly, looks and feels unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Meanwhile, two new ABC shows, Emergence and Stumptown, revealed that the wild west of streaming is still the place to go if you want something fresh and challenging, because these shows feel carefully calculated to live on basic cable. For one of them, that may not be a problem. For the other…we’ll just have to wait and see.

Undone comic-con

Undone

Created by BoJack Horseman mastermind Raphael Bob-Waksberg and BoJack Horseman writer Kate Purdy, Undone is almost impossible to summarize in a bite-sized paragraph. It’s the kind of series built to be stumbled across as you scroll through Amazon Prime Video, the kind of thing intended to be whispered about around the water cooler, Russian Doll-style. You’re hooked by the sheer audacity of it, the promise of something genuinely special…if it can match those early highs. And based on the two episodes screened at Comic-Con, I certainly hope Undone can maintain its unique stride going forward because what we saw was often astonishing.

Remember when I said this was a series that is hard to summarize? Amazon must’ve known that, because it takes two episodes to even begin to tap into the show’s basic premise. But here goes: Undone is about a young woman named Alma (Rosa Salazar, making a strong case for absolute stardom), who drifts, depressed and listless, through her late 20s. And then she’s in a car accident. And then she finds herself unstuck from reality. And then she finds herself guided to use her new powers, rooted in the mythology of indigenous peoples, to experience time and space in ways that are impossible, all with the help of the ghost of her dead father (Bob Odenkirk), who has his own unfinished business he wants her to resolve. Unless Alma is just crazy – but even if she is, what’s the difference? Either way, she’s got a lot of stuff to deal with, and whether it’s cold hard reality or something far more fantastical doesn’t really matter in the end.

That wild premise is aided by the show’s rotoscope animation, which sees live actors and sets painted over, transforming even the most simple dialogue scene into a living painting. The effect is seamless, so lovely, that the line between animation and reality begins to blur. Your mind often reads scenes as three-dimensional and two-dimensional at the same time, perfect for a series that manipulates reality at its whims and allows the absurd, the surreal, the beautiful, and the frightening to invade a scene as the story dictates. You forget that Undone is even animated until the series tears away any semblance of reality. It’s an incredible effect and arguably the best use of rotoscoping I have ever seen.

Over the course of its first two episodes, Undone asks the viewer to buy into two seemingly different shows. The first episode is a blend of domestic drama and wry comedy about an aimless young woman, her happier sister, her smothering mother, and the figment of a dead father who continues to figuratively haunt the family. It’s a tough, honest show, one unafraid to cast its characters in an ugly light and wallow in their poor choices, practically daring you like them…and you do, because their baggage is so specific that it can’t help but feel universal. The second episode is where the larger plot really kicks in, where that dead father haunting becomes literal, where the stripped-down presentation goes into hyperactive stylization, and where the melancholies and emotional burdens become literal. I’m not sure how the series intends to balance these tones, these two shows, these two perspectives, but I know I’m willing to find out when the series hits Amazon Prime Video.

Emergence

It’s hard to entirely dislike a show that has the good taste to feature Allison Tolman and Clancy Brown in key roles, but Emergence feels familiar in all of the wrong ways. In fact, the series feels like a warmed-over relic rescued from the mid-’00s, when every network was attempting to mimic the success of Lost by whipping up their own ambitious genre mystery series. This feels like one that would’ve been forgotten even back then.

You’ve seen the basic premise before. A small-town sheriff (Tolman) discovers a mysterious girl near the scene of a plane crash. She is unharmed, but her memory is gone. Soon enough, mysterious government agents are tracking the kid down. Electronics go haywire around her. When no one is looking, we see her acting like she knows far more about who she is and where she came from than she is letting on. Naturally, a surrogate family forms around her and the fight to protect her from mysterious forces begins.

Ultimately, your interest in Emergence will depend entirely on whether or not you find the central mystery compelling and to be completely honest, I did not. Tolman makes for a wonderful lead (even if she can do this homespun tough gal thing in her sleep) and Brown is as dependable as ever as the Good Guy Grandfather, but the supporting cast blends into the background, the action feels about as cheap as you’d expect for an ABC pilot, and none of the horror, sci-fi, or conspiracy hooks really sink in. The first episode of Emergence concludes with many unanswered questions, but none of them really demand answers.

Stumptown

Like Emergence, Stumptown is another ABC series that looks very familiar at first glance. But unlike that series, this private investigator drama looks like it could be the real deal. Maybe. We’ll see. Perhaps the network brought the show to Comic-Con a bit early, as they were only ready to screen the opening scene of the first episode and a brisk sizzle reel of additional footage. Hell, the showrunner couldn’t even attend the panel because he’s too deep in production. So all reactions need to be muted – who knows what happens beyond the few minutes that were screened for us?

I will say this much: I did very much enjoy those few minutes. Based on the Oni comic book series by writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth, Stumptown is the latest stab at the “troubled person solves crimes to pay the rent” subgenre. Specifically, it’s a procedural drama about an Afghanistan War veteran named Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders) who battles PTSD and unpaid parking tickets, ultimately deciding to become a P.I. in Portland, Oregon to pay the bills.

The opening scene of the first episode showcases a unique blend of grit and wit: two crooks drive through the city, ignoring the thumps and screams from their trunk as they compare notes on their hipster coffee. Eventually, Dex makes herself known: she breaks through a space between the back seat, escapes her captivity in the trunk, sprays her captors with a fire extinguisher and proceeds to battle them over control of the car. The vehicle swerves through busy traffic as they brawl – it’s an appropriately sloppy fight, a skirmish fought by scrappy amateurs, not martial artists. It all climaxes with the car careening off the road, hitting a ramp and flying through the air. Freeze frame. Title.

The appeal of Stumptown on the page is that it’s deliberately old-fashioned. You don’t see a lot of traditional P.I. stories in the comic book medium and the thrill comes from Rucka’s knack for character and Southworth’s lived-in artwork. That makes for a difficult transition to television, where procedurals are a dime a dozen. The elements that make Stumptown so special in its source material could be easily shaved away by a television adaptation, especially one on ABC, a network not necessarily known for airing shows which allow us to really sink in and get to know troubled, well-worn characters like the comic version of Dex. As much as I enjoyed the full scene, the sizzle reel immediately put my guard back up. Even if Stumptown is a pleasant surprise that captures the source material. ABC is still going to sell it like a typical, bland drama, white noise for you to fold laundry to. One of these pieces of footage is selling the show we’ll see later this year. I hope it’s the former.

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