When Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley collaborated on the hugely successful series Big Little Lies, it gripped television viewers with its powerful storytelling, strong performances and biting humour. It was a success in every way. The temptation is for those involved to try and replicate its success. Whether with a second series, or in the case of The Undoing, using the template for a different story. The Undoing, based on the novel ‘You Should Have Known’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz, became HBO’s most watched show of 2020 and the ingredients are there for a modern TV classic. Kidman, Kelley, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland join director Susanne Bier from the terrific The Night Manager in a story with murder, suspense, and intrigue. Sadly, despite a promising start, The Undoing proves unable to sustain the potential from its premise.
The series is set in New York, and centres on psychologist Grace Fraser (Kidman) and her oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant). They are a wealthy couple with a 12-year-old son, Henry (Noah Jupe) and influence within the city from Grace’s father Franklin (Donald Sutherland).
At a fundraiser for Henry’s school, Grace meets a beautiful young woman named Elena Alvarez (Matilda De Angelis). She continues to see Elena in various other situations, including a gym bathroom, presenting herself fully nude (this is not a ground-breaking series in its approach to nudity, as no male character is ever seen so exposed). Grace is unnerved, but events soon take a darker turn when Elena is found murdered in her artist’s studio by her ten-year-old son Miguel (Edan Alexander). Her husband, Fernando (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is a man with a highly explosive temper, but Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) has another suspect. Jonathan, as it transpires, is hiding a few unsavoury secrets that threaten the seemingly perfect marriage the Frasers share.
As the series progresses, cast members Noma Dumezweni and Sofie Grabol enter to provide further flavouring to the pot, as Grace must come to terms with the lies within her marriage and her own unstable mindset.
The Undoing has much of the same shape and trajectory of Big Little Lies, with a lot of very striking similarities. There’s the picture-postcard marriage, which is in reality on its knees. Rich private-school mothers who gossip about those in lower social circles; Elena’s fate is speculated as being cartel-related, as she was Latino, though played by an Italian actress. And there are plenty of opportunities for Kidman to go into full meltdown mode. The issue with Grace is that she is a frustratingly passive character, one who reacts to things rather than proactively doing things for herself. It’s a flaw that defines most of the characters within the series, full development is sloppy. There’s also a startling amount of stupidity among these seemingly intelligent people. If you’re trying to hide something from your family, why have a secret meeting in front of one of them?
Writer Kelley’s approach is too heavy, using shock value over legitimate storytelling. Each episode ends with a new shock, but the next episode begins with that same shock being either swept under the carpet or solved far too quickly. It works on a ‘cliff-hanger’ basis by getting viewers to tune in for the next episode, but it doesn’t have the same effect when viewing the whole series without a break.
It would be wrong to call The Undoing a whodunnit. Sure, there’s a murder and a seemingly endless array of suspects, but the focus is so heavy on one individual it becomes painfully obvious where things are going. It wants to be a psychological thriller, but lacks the complexity and depth to really work. The subtlety and nuance of episode one, and the emotional resonance that comes with episode three, all but evaporates by the time the series reaches its somewhat laughable conclusion.
The final resolution is a disaster; overwrought, clumsily scored, laughably nonsensical and completely unbelievable. Having started as a cross between Broadchurch and Desperate Housewives, it turns into an awkward blend of 24 and one of those excessive 90s thrillers where there’s a big chase involving helicopters, bridges and someone running in slow motion. In this case Kidman, her curly red hair blowing in the wind like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II.
Along the way, Kelley ticks off every cliché in mystery thrillers. Dumezweni and Grabol come to pontificate and scenery-chew as the prosecution and defence lawyers in the murder trial. Another suspect is put in the spotlight because of a moment of anger, and there’s even a very uncomfortable moment where the son of the victim is forced to witness a horrifying image of his mother’s face almost completely smashed apart, having already witnessed the trauma of finding her. The show isn’t clever enough to keep people guessing. In fact, most people will be several steps ahead waiting for everyone else to catch up.
The role of women in dramas like The Undoing has always been problematic, particularly when it involves them being victims of violence at the hands of men. Some series and films, like Big Little Lies itself, can use the basis for domestic violence to tell powerful, hard-hitting stories with elements of truth and understanding for everyone involved. Others, like The Undoing, use it for shlock and gratuity. The murder victim here is a beautiful young woman- played by an actress who at the time was under 25, who never becomes a fully fledged person in her own right. She is defined by her brutal murder and her sexual proclivities. Her only scenes prior to her death have her in a revealing dress or completely naked, while the flashbacks are of her head constantly being bashed in.
The main suspect is a middle-aged man accused of having an affair with her, played by an actor in his late 50s. Her husband is known for his bouts of violence and the women she shares a committee with are put off by her breastfeeding her baby during the meeting whilst at the same time gossiping about her body. Grace herself falls victim to this same pattern. Despite being the show’s lead, she never comes across as fully three-dimensional, being assembled from various parts Kidman has played in the past. The ‘Bechdel’ test, which is used to assess the quality of female parts in film and TV, is failed here.
There are some minor pleasures to be had in watching The Undoing. Susanne Bier is an incredibly gifted director and her talent for staging confrontation and drama is peerless. She and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle create a Manhattan that feels eerie and off-putting, filtered through a slight haze as the sheen is forcibly removed from Grace’s cosy life. Where the series can create suspense, it is often due to the efforts of Bier and her team behind the camera.
The endless quality of talent in front of the camera means each episode is never less than watchable. Kidman, despite the limitations of her character, cuts an elegant and mysterious figure and she manages to make Grace a person of suspicion even if the plot is unwilling to take that risk. Hugh Grant, reinvigorated after his terrific villainous turn in Paddington 2, dials up the smarm and sleaziness to play a man whose guilt seems never in doubt, yet there’s still a small chance he may be innocent. Grant has always been an actor who works best when playing morally dubious people and he certainly seems to relish the chance to do so again here. Somewhat bizarrely, Grant uses his natural British accent, which creates a disconnect between him and everyone else; he’s quite literally the outlier.
The legendary Donald Sutherland gets his own little moments to shine, including a superb monologue in which he cuts loose with a series of expletives about the type of man Franklin is. Its also a delight to see him bristle with disgust whenever he’s in Grant’s presence. The rest of the cast, consisting of rising stars (Matilda De Angelis, who plays the victim, is now appearing in a series about Leonardo da Vinci with Aidan Turner), veterans (Grabol, Dumezweni and the wonderful Rosemary Harris) character actors (Douglas Hodge and Edgar Ramirez, who resembles a young Andy Garcia) and child stars (Noah Jupe, as Henry, is wonderful) are on the periphery, but all are provided chances to share secrets or add some intrigue to proceedings.
There are too many series like The Undoing. They start with promise and are at times inspired, but they soon devolve into predictability and generic cliché. It proves that having a starry cast and a talented writer doesn’t always mean quality and that just because something was popular with audiences every weeknight doesn’t mean it is sustainable long term. If there is a second season, it needs to be less fanciful and more grounded in a sense of reality. It’s watchable, but certainly not a classic.
The Undoing is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 22nd March 2021.