After a Strong Start, HBO’s The Undoing Loses Sight of What It’s Doing

TV Reviews The Undoing
After a Strong Start, HBO’s The Undoing Loses Sight of What It’s Doing

A brooding, murder-y HBO drama adapted by David E. Kelley and starring Nicole Kidman as an emotionally wrecked, extremely wealthy wife and mother … we’re talking about Big Little Lies, right? But surprise! This is actually about The Undoing, a six-part limited series that is in many ways Big Little Lies-lite. It doesn’t star the strong, sprawling female cast that BLL did, but it does feature a number of similar hallmarks (see above). It’s also not nearly as gaudy or bombastic or even dreamy, but rather a muted investigation into one character’s realization that she could be married to a monster.

In Big Little Lies, Nicole Kidman’s character knows she’s married to a monster, she just chooses to look past it (for awhile). Here, it’s less clear. In the premiere, Kidman’s Grace Fraser is one of those “has it all” New York women that TV loves so much. She’s a gorgeous therapist married to an endlessly charming pediatric oncologist, Jonathan (Hugh Grant). Her son, Henry (Noah Jupe) is sweet and precocious and goes to an insanely expensive school where the parents are, a la Big Little Lies, absolute snobby terrors. So you know it’s about to all come crashing down.

And it all does, in relatively short order. By the end of the first episode, it’s easy to guess who has killed Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), a beautiful and brazen young mother and artist whose son goes to Henry’s school, and why she met an untimely end. The show plays coy after that, but as everyone—from the stern, hunky lead detective (Edgar Ramirez) to one of the city’s best defense lawyers (Noma Dumezweni)—keeps saying, the evidence is blindingly clear.

The series is based on the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. That title is based on the book Grace (in the novel) is getting ready to publish, about the warning signs one should look for before committing to a partner. In the show, Grace communicates this idea to clients through a few therapy sessions. And then when her seemingly perfect husband Jonathan goes missing just after the murder, she starts to wonder if maybe she missed a few signs.

Jonathan is essentially off the map for the duration of the novel, making it an internal investigation of Grace’s fears and suspicions as she tries to piece together more about the man she thought she knew. In The Undoing, Jonathan is very much on the scene, which is good and bad. On the one hand, it gives us more of Hugh Grant’s glorious career turn to devilish roles, which has been a truly wonderful transformation (if you haven’t seen Paddington 2 or A Very English Scandal, I highly encourage it). On the other, it means that The Undoing wants to play around with the idea that maybe Jonathan is innocent. HBO provided us five out of the eventual six episodes to review, which sets up a shaky cliffhanger going into the finale. Maybe it continues down that path, maybe it doesn’t, but in the meantime what we get is a muddled flip-flopping of Grace’s feelings about Jonathan and uncertainty regarding the truth.

For this reason and others, The Undoing doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s doing. I was happy to keep pressing play to watch each new episode because there are so many interesting breadcrumbs dropped—but they don’t lead us anywhere. In its first (genuinely great) episode, the show is set up as a potential investigation into class and wealth disparity, but that’s not addressed again. We also never see a conversation between Grace and any of her clients after the scandal starts. One of the Mean Mommies at her son’s school actually appears to be a genuine friend, but she’s too unevenly written to feel anything but suspicion. I also kept waiting for some smoldering scene with the detective, given the way it’s built up, but he just frowns a lot. Elena, too, is never really a person but an idea. Not to mention that there’s an incredible throwaway line where the defense lawyer says she can “piggyback” off of Amazon and Google to know everything about jurors, and can “target their Facebook and Instagrams with pro-defense ads.” (?!) That feels worthy of a little more time.

Still, The Undoing is fine. This is thanks entirely to the strength of its cast, and had the show trusted more in that and less into making it a quasi-murder mystery, it might have landed better. Though it starts out as a kind of psychological thriller, it slows down dramatically once it hits court case mode (as most murder mysteries and thrillers tend to do, Big Little Lies absolutely included). There is some great character work from the leads, including Donald Sutherland as Grace’s father, and Nicole Kidman—flaming red hair flowing in endless waves, wrapping herself tightly in a stunning green coat with her gold rings flashing—is in top form. Director Susanne Bier, who also lensed the sensationally Vogue-like Night Manager, is also a key element in the elevation of the material, even though she’s not really given much to work with. It feels like Kelley took an interesting idea and crammed into a not nearly as interesting murder mystery / courtroom drama formula. It doesn’t really work, and yet, it’s also fine.

Presented as a prestige piece, The Undoing is instead more like a pulpy thriller novel. A slightly new spin on a familiar genre, it’s a page-turner for the duration of the ride, but once put down it doesn’t leave you with much.

The Undoing premieres Sunday, October 25th on HBO.

Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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