The Undoing: Another Notch for HBO’s Limited Series
From the opening sequence of The Undoing, where pictures of a pretty young child with red hair playing in a field to ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ to the opening moments where we see Nicole Kidman in a huge loft apartment getting ready for work with her husband and young son, it’s easy to make the assumption that this is just going to be another Big Little Lies pastiche, set in New York instead of LA. I have no doubt some critics will make the same jump, considering this is yet another adaptation of a best-seller turned into a limited series by David E. Kelley. They are clearly in the wrong.
Unlike Big Little Lies first season, which was split between multiple perspectives, The Undoing focuses entirely on Kidman’s character, Grace Fraser, a very successful therapist on the Upper West Side. Grace seems to have it all, a successful husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant continuing his remarkable late career resurgence), a son who goes to a private school that you could only find in New York, and a woman well respected in her community. But right from the start, there are signs of problems, mostly focused on a young woman named Elena, who seems very comfortable with her own body and uncomfortable with everything else. We don’t understand how she fits in to this world, especially in a charity auction for the school (that admittedly, wouldn’t be out of place in Big Little Lies).
Then, the very next days, things turn dark. Elena is found murdered in her studio. Two detectives show up on Grace’s door, and they seem unusually intent on getting answers from her. Then Grace tries to reach her husband and can’t. Then she finds his cell phone still in their apartment. And after a series of calls, she finds that her husband is not where he says he is.
Unlike Big Little Lies (and this year’s Little Fires Everywhere) I actually read the novel The Undoing is based: You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. So I know (or at least I think I do) where this story is going to do, and there’s a reason that Kelley was drawn to this material. It’s not a whodunit so much as a character study as this incident will reveal to Grace the utter falsity she has built her entire life on. We get some hints of it in the premier episode, and I give full credit to Grant for now creating a personality that seems perfectly likable but you can see something vaguely untrustworthy below the surface. You don’t want to buy it — Jonathan is a pediatric oncologist, which may be the hardest profession anyone could personally choose, and he’s clearly good at his job — but you can sense that there is something not quite right lurking below the surface. (On a different note, Kidman really doesn’t know how choose the right husband in these series.)
There are moments of pure satire in this to liven up the darkness — the auction is one of the most parodying scenes Kelley has ever written — and there are a lot of other great actors around. It’s good to see that Janel Moloney, who unlike most of her fellow West Wingers has been far less prolific, is back and in great form, though we’re still not sure how well Donald Sutherland will be used as Grace’s father. (Though I have few doubts; it’s Donald Sutherland, after all.) But I have a hunch that The Undoing is going to be a lot darker than Kelley’s previous work, not just because I read the source material, but because it seems right from the start far more unsettling.
I have no doubt the cynics out there will claim without watching more than a few minutes of The Undoing that’s it Emmy bait, pure and simple. It’s an HBO adaptation of best seller, Kelley adapted it for the network, Susanne Bier, best known for her work on The Night Manager, directed every episode, and Kidman, Grant and Sutherland are in the lead roles. It checks all the boxes. Well, it’s only bait if the series works, and believe me the show works.
My score: 4.5 stars.