HBO’s The Undoing has an all too familiar feel about it. Tell me if anyone has seen a show like this before; a beautiful woman with an ideal life finds her world crashing down on her because of an incident at her son’s prep school on the night of a big fundraiser, which leads to someone’s death. Could this be the third season of Big Little Lies that we’ve all been craving? Well, not exactly, but it’s easy to make that comparison.
Nicole Kidman is once again front and center in a series written by David E. Kelley (which he adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known). Combine that with the narrative being quite similar to the highly popular HBO series; doing this, though, would be lazy. Big Little Lies has a clear tone and fast-paced. The Undoing is a meticulous examination of privilege and the evils which follow. Kelley brought director Susanne Bier (Emmy winner for The Night Manager and Oscar-winning In a Better World) for that very reason. Bier has a history of successful projects which are both dark and slowly developing. However, there is a point when a show pivots from being gradually developed to just plodding along that the audience begins to check out. In The Undoing, there are moments where the show feels it could be teetering in that direction, but luckily the campiness keeps audiences engaged.
The show centers around Grace Fisher (Kidman), a marriage counselor in Manhattan whose life is thriving. Her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), is an oncologist at the local children’s hospital. While planning a fundraiser at her son Henry’s school (Noah Jupe), Grace meets Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), who is acting a bit strange. The other parents aren’t kind to her because she’s attending their school on a scholarship and is clearly in a different tax bracket. Grace and Elena seem to develop a bond that some at the school find unsettling. How could someone of such high regard befriend someone like Mrs. Alves?
David E. Kelley’s latest series is examining the haves, and the have nots. Although Grace fits in well with her high society friends, her character seems uneasy around them. When they are at her son’s school planning the fundraiser, she’s there to contribute while many of her friends take control. When Elena joins their friendship circle through school, they are polite to her face and belittling when her backs turn. Grace’s uneasiness in those circles is likely why she’s drawn to Elena. She relates well to her. The dichotomy between how she interacts with her wealthy circle of friends and Elena is certainly telling.
The Undoing kicks it into high gear the night of the fundraiser when Elena is found dead. Grace finds herself reeling from these events. While the urge is to turn towards her husband for comfort, it becomes apparent that he’s now missing as well. Fear turns to anger when it quickly becomes evident that he isn’t missing, but he’s fled. NYPD is actively looking for him. How could her perfect husband be involved in something so foul?
Two of the more compelling characters in the series are Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramírez) and her gossipy friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe). We first meet Mendoza when NYPD is attempting to track down Grace’s husband for questioning. While the rest of the team investigating this murder is a bit more rigid, Mendoza comes off a bit aloof and flirty when directly interacting with her—seeing how he’s acting sets off alarm bells almost immediately. It would make sense, the dashing cop framing her husband so that he can have the beautiful Grace to himself. For those skeptical of this, there’s a scene in the series where Kidman’s character is in custody, and Mendoza conveniently forgets to read her the Miranda Rights. For someone who has been a detective for many years, forgetting something so basic seems very suspicious.
We first are introduced to Sylvia a quarter of the way through the first episode. Rabe’s character at first comes off as a typical chatty mother at her son’s school, but we quickly learn she’s the de facto leader of this group. We first notice her overt racial views when she makes off hand comments such as “the right people fit in.” What’s crazy is how these other mothers quickly adopt her mentality. This, of course, explains why they were so cold to Elena in the beginning, plus the danger which comes with “group think.”
The narrative starts to gel once Kidman begins attempting to navigate the mess her life has become. It’s what makes Big Little Lies thrive and The Undoing a good show. Grant, to me, was a pleasant surprise. Anyone expecting to see that charming British lead in nearly every rom-com will be quite shocked by this performance. His portrayal of Jonathan is a delicate balance between desperate husband and sociopath. Donald Sutherland plays Grace’s father in the series and delivers a solid performance, which we’ve come to expect over the years. While The Undoing isn’t perfect and does fall into some rote plot points throughout the five episodes HBO provided for review, the sum of the show outweighs those parts.
The six-episode limited series The Undoing starts Sunday, October 25 at 9 pm EST on HBO and HBO Max and airs weekly.