Plot: Grace and Jonathan Fraser are living the only lives they ever wanted for themselves. Overnight a chasm opens in their lives: a violent death and a chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and her family.
Review: HBO had a hit with Big Little Lies in 2017 thanks to David E. Kelley’s trademark dialogue and an all-star cast led by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. While the second season of that show didn’t live up to expectations, Kelley and Kidman have reunited for another adaptation of a best-selling novel about couples, sex, obsession, and murder. The Undoing, based on the book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is a fairly straightforward thriller that once again showcases Kidman’s substantial acting chops as well as more proof that Hugh Grant is one of the most under-used talents working in film today. But, as good as the cast are in this series, The Undoing feels very familiar with each twist and turn easily deduced early on.
The Undoing starts out as a cross between HBO’s acclaimed Succession crossed with Big Little Lies. We see the Manhattan upper crust that circles around a private prep school. The helicopter parents are all lawyers and doctors who run fundraisers and gossip about anyone who makes less than a six-figure salary. At the center are Dr. Grace Fraser (Kidman), a therapist, and her husband Dr. Jonathan Fraser (Grant), a pediatric oncologist. The pair have an idyllic marriage and family with their son Henry (A QUIET PLACE’s Noah Jupe). Things change when Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), a young mother whose son attends Reardon, enters Grace’s life. By the end of the first episode, someone is dead and it upends the status quo for the Frasers.
But while the first hour has some satirical jabs at these elite New Yorkers, the subsequent episodes focus primarily on Grace and her involvement with the murder investigation led by Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez). If you have read the novel, you know that the trailers released thus far reveal virtually nothing about the true plot of The Undoing and that is definitely a saving grace. Once you see the narrative unfold, all of the characters begin to fall into their cliche roles in any number of similar stories ranging from GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN to AppleTV+’s Defending Jacob. Each episode teases out more clues to the mystery at the core of The Undoing but each one doesn’t feel quite as shocking as David E. Kelley wants you to think.
While the plot itself is decent, it is barely held together. Kelley is known for his taut writing which helped elevate Big Little Lies from soapy to excellent. Here, has some extremely talented performers who just don’t act the way you would think real people would act. Nicole Kidman is as good here as she was in Big Little Lies, maybe better. But some of the decisions her character makes defy logic and will have you shouting at your screen. Hugh Grant, who uses his trademark dry wit and delivery here, is a woefully underused dramatic actor and plays Jonathan in a way that you do not expect. The supporting cast are all great as well including Noah Jupe, Lily Rabe (American Horror Story), Noma Dumezweni, Ismael Cruz Cordova, and Donald Sutherland. Sutherland, who has recently become the go-to actor to play stalwart elder gentlemen, owns every scene he appears in.
Make no mistake, The Undoing looks good. Directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, BIRD BOX), this tale unfolds with beautiful New York backdrops of skylines, parks, and city streets that make the story feel anchored in a pre-coronavirus metropolis where social distancing was a far off thought. Everyone is immaculately dressed (when they aren’t naked) and wear the most fashionable attire. Scored by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine with Victor Reyes, each episode has a haunting score intercut with some beautiful classical pieces. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography makes great use of the New York location shooting and Bier never hesitates to show us scenes of brutality as much as insecurity and weakness.
Having seen five of the six episodes that comprise The Undoing, I have not yet seen how the mystery is resolved. I will absolutely be tuning in to catch the conclusion of this tale which should tell you that it is at least an engrossing story. I am happy that the trailers did not ruin the plot of this series as that definitely gave me a better chance to give myself over to the narrative, but I still found myself questioning the decisions every character makes and almost groaning at every reveal. Fans of the novel are still in for some surprises as Kelley’s script changes more than just character names. The Undoing is definitely not the same type of story as Big Little Lies but it does have enough going for it that you will likely be tuning in over the six weeks the series airs on HBO and may even enjoy it as a binge once all episodes are available on HBO Max. Just be prepared for red herrings and that you as a viewer may be a better detective than anyone on this show.
The Undoing premieres October 25th on HBO and HBO Max.