Another day, another show about murderous intrigue.
“The Undoing” premieres Sunday on HBO, giving Nicole Kidman another prestige project from the network behind the similarly themed “Big Little Lies.” This time Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a wealthy Manhattan therapist who finds her polished lifestyle suddenly unraveling when her husband (Hugh Grant) is accused of killing his paramour Elena (Matilda De Angelis).
Reviews of the six-episode limited series have been mixed, with IndieWire calling it “misguided” and Vulture deeming it “seductive.” But with such star power (Donald Sutherland, Lily Rabe, Noah Jupe and Édgar Ramírez round out the supporting cast), there must be something worthwhile in “The Undoing.”
To find out, HuffPost reporters Leigh Blickley and Matthew Jacobs fired up a few episodes and chatted about their findings.
The Bottom Line
“The Undoing” isn’t fresh enough to constitute must-see TV, but it has plenty of allure, including twisty cliffhangers, a chilly atmosphere and a few exemplary performances.
Cast And Characters
Matthew Jacobs: “The Undoing” couldn’t be more indicative of TV in the early 2020s: two certified movie stars uniting for the sort of pulpy literary adaptation that 25 years ago would have lit up the box office. It’s wealth porn, murder mystery and domestic-discord noir. I was hooked after one episode. What’d you think?
Leigh Blickley: Couldn’t agree more. Give me a thriller set in pre-COVID New York City and I’m all yours. “The Undoing” grabbed my attention the minute Nicole Kidman brushed her teeth in a flowing bathrobe while walking through an enormous, wallpaper-adorned Upper East Side brownstone. The glamour. The predictable terror. It’s also unreal to me that Kidman and Hugh Grant have never worked together before. What a treat for us.
MJ: I suppose “rich people on the verge of a breakdown” has always been Kidman’s specialty (see: “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Others,” “Birth”), which means David E. Kelley is keeping an entire subgenre alive. Kidman and Grant get equal billing, but it’s really her show, spotty American accent and all. In “Big Little Lies,” her best scenes occurred during therapy sessions. In “The Undoing,” she’s the therapist — arguably not a great one, but that’s another matter — yet that doesn’t provide Grace any detailed understanding of her husband’s behavior. I’ve seen three episodes, and I’m worried the show is too familiar (messy affairs, class disparities) to pull off a real surprise in the end. But I’ll certainly stick around to find out.
LB: Thank you for calling out Kidman’s accent, which perplexed me at times. Grant, luckily, gets to stick with his British brogue playing her husband, respected pediatric oncologist Jonathan Fraser, who seems as dedicated to his family as he is to his relentless job. Yet Jonathan carries some dark secrets ― secrets that blow up the Frasers’ seemingly idyllic life.
Just Another Whodunnit?
LB: “The Undoing” is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel “You Should Have Known,” which I have not read but might dip into now that I’ve become wrapped up in this story. Have you read it, Matt?
MJ: I haven’t, and I was intrigued when I saw a recent Vulture story call the show “more of a whodunnit than the novel.” That tweak also seems indicative of the Peak TV era. (Or have we already graduated to Post-Peak TV? I can’t keep up.) Maximized intrigue is what keeps people coming back for more, or so networks think. To get a green light, you need cliffhangers. It can be a bit exhausting, but I found the thriller aspects of this show far more absorbing than some of the similar programming we’ve seen this year. I’m thinking of “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Ratched” and the latest “Fargo” season.
LB: Yes, when I went into the series, I was honestly set to give up after an episode or two due to my expectations surrounding these types of series recently. (How many more murder mysteries and/or crime shows do we need, truly?) But I ended up absorbed by Kelley and director Susanne Bier’s storytelling and the way they unravel the psychological states of these characters. Bier zooms all the way in, literally and figuratively, with each passing glance. Her distinct style of filmmaking (“The Night Manager,” “Bird Box”) definitely grabs you.
I also found myself feeling for, and believing, almost all of the men in Grace’s life ― whether that’s Jonathan, their teenage son Henry (played by Noah Jupe) or Grace’s utterly rich and intense socialite father Franklin (Donald Sutherland). The study of these men intrigued me alongside, of course, the analysis of Grace herself ― a therapist who seemingly “should have known” of her husband’s sociopathic tendencies.
MJ: Yes, and the fact that it’s set at a fancy private school seems pretty typical, too. There’s even a high-class charity event at the center, just like there was in “Big Little Lies.” (That show had a lot more humor, though.) But I like the relationship between Grace and Henry, who is mature for his age and forced to confront the complexities of his father’s wrongdoings. How much should Grace tell him? How much can he handle?
Having seen more episodes, what do you make of Elena’s murder? It’s the inciting incident, leading to flashbacks of what came before. The show gives Elena an exoticism that’s both enticing and troubling. She’s a vaguely bisexual, working-class artist whose presence makes the tony Upper East Side moms uncomfortable. But she’s dead and can no longer speak for herself, especially if the back half of the season is just a courtroom drama.
LB: Elena’s introduction is immediately telling ― as a viewer, you can sense she’s at the center of this story from her first closeup. Actress Matilda De Angelis brings a mystery to the character. As we discover more about her following her death, Elena’s enigmatic energy becomes more clear. The mother of two was in a love quadruple of sorts with her husband Fernando (Ismael Cruz Córdova), Jonathan and Grace, all of whom are confused about their feelings for her. This adds to the whodunnit aspect of the series as true intentions start to untangle. Is Jonathan really a killer? Was Grace involved in any way? Did jealousy lead Fernando to murder? Then, of course, supporting players like Henry and Franklin, as well as a lawyer (Noma Dumezweni) and a detective (Édgar Ramírez), muddle everything even more.
Highs And Lows
MJ: To that end, I wonder if “The Undoing” would have been better as a movie. The gradual pacing is going to turn some folks off, and for me, it made Elena seem like even more of a cipher than she’s meant to be. The show is at its best when focused on Grace and her inner circle, yet the whole thing hinges on this inscrutable dead woman whose key trait was living in a different ZIP code. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Noah Jupe, arguably the greatest child actor working today, who carries a ton of weight in the show and holds his own opposite Kidman.
LB: Ever since I saw Jupe in “Wonder,” I’ve been such a fan of his. “A Quiet Place,” “Honey Boy,” “Ford v. Ferrari” — he’s been a solid standout over the years. But you’re right. “The Undoing” has its strengths as a series but could’ve, and maybe should’ve, just been a movie. After all, it’s all said and done in six episodes. Two and a half hours would’ve sufficed?
MJ: And now we’ve pinpointed the problem of Peak TV. Still, the schadenfreude of seeing the 1% unravel hasn’t gone away, and Kidman is reliably great.
So, Should You Watch It?
LB: I must say that out of all the shows I’ve devoured lately, this one really stuck with me. The prep school world of New York’s elite is so enticing, especially when murder is mixed in. And with COVID delays impacting the TV space, a visionary limited series just hits the spot. Plus, Kidman delivers, as does Grant, who’s lately had an impressive run of projects (“Paddington 2” forever).
MJ: There’s a chilliness to Bier’s approach that is undeniably effective. I’m not sure the series can rise above its “rich people problems” trappings, but I’m on board for the journey anyway.
“The Undoing” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on HBO and HBO Max.