Cutting to the chase, which is something “The Undoing” never does: HBO’s new limited series is not worth your time. Unless you’re an aspiring Hugh Grant-aissance completist (or, if you will, “Art Hughveau”, a term coined by IndieWire’s own Steve Greene for the actor’s post-rom-com resurgence in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “A Very English Scandal,” and, the obvious pinnacle, “Paddington 2”), David E. Kelley’s latest attempt to recapture that “Big Little Lies” magic falls flatter than a marmalade sandwich minus the marmalade. Shot like a pulpy ’90s erotic thriller by Susanne Bier and stretched thinner than the Netflix version it echoes (remember “Gypsy”?), there’s very little entertainment to be had here, and even less of a purpose.
Still, respect must be paid to the Grant-aholics. Given the mounds of goodwill (and awards buzz) he’s earned for his latest work, I, too, might be tempted to take a peek at his latest prestige turn, so the following review will be as light as possible on spoilers. (Apologies for any vague descriptors, but given how little happens in “The Undoing,” just about every specified plot point doubles as a spoiled twist.)
“The Undoing” opens with a young boy discovering a brutal homicide. Walking into his parents’ basement-level studio, the grade schooler opens the door, stops suddenly, and stares, horrified, at a sight so tragic it must be kept offscreen. For anyone who’s seen the trailer for HBO’s latest murder-mystery, then you know the dead woman on the floor is his mother, and you also know that the show’s two leads look nothing like the Puerto Rican child whose life has just been irreversibly capsized.
With a cut so abrupt it invites a black comic chuckle, Bier whisks us away from the bottom-dwelling disaster to a luxe Manhattan brownstone and the beautiful, breathing stars within. It’s two days earlier, and Nicole Kidman, as Grace Fraser, is putting together the day’s ensemble as she paces through her cavernous top-floor bedroom. Her husband, Dr. Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant), is struggling with his tie downstairs, next to their uniformed son, Henry (Noah Jupe), who’s carefully blending a smoothie to avoid spilling on his crested blazer.
A mere three minutes in, the stark differences in class and good fortune could not be any clearer: The Frasers are wealthy, white, and carefree. The biggest blight on Jonathan’s day is swapping his necktie for a bowtie to attend that evening’s glitzy school fundraiser. The Alves trio, meanwhile, are working class people of color who have just been dealt an immeasurable loss. What connects the two families is what drives “The Undoing,” but the ruin referenced in the title only applies to… the Frasers?
Instincts should guide any storyteller toward the Alves family, as that’s where the greatest drama clearly lies: a boy who’s lost his mother, a father who’s lost his wife, and a search for the killer who must be brought to justice — for their sake, as well as society’s. But Kelley’s story (adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel, “You Should Have Known”) is told from Grace’s perspective. (Kidman serves as an executive producer.) Through five of the six episodes, the limited series’ primary goal is to scare anyone who already has it all — Grace bluntly admits she’s living the dream — by making them worry it might be taken away. “What if you lost everything that matters to you?” is the unspoken question rattling around Grace’s mind. But the key, unspoken addendum is what stands out: “Except your money. You can keep that. And no one died. They’re just not as nice as you thought.”
It’s a strange framework for this rather rudimentary courtroom drama, and one that makes you think Kelley, Bier, and Kidman (the primary creatives) have something important to say about class, privilege, and the disparity felt by those on either end of both. While “The Undoing” deploys keywords like “white privilege” to acknowledge its chosen characters’ entitled perspective, the show is content with flagging them. It has nothing to say about the wealth gap, and takes zero time to explore the actual victims’ perspectives (you know, the son who lost his mother and the dead woman herself).
Kidman, as the misguided story’s ill-advised face, gets the worst of it. Her ability to embolden characters with innate delicacy and ferocious power doesn’t translate this time around, as she’s asked to turn an oblivious, jumpy waif into a commanding lead with little more than a constantly worried expression. Grace spends a lot of time walking around, thinking, trying to sort her thoughts — a habit that becomes a red herring later on, but never evolves into informative or engaging viewing. It’s also clear that Kelley isn’t invested in the character at all; he’s far more drawn to Jonathan and conveniently ignores Grace’s established character traits when it means giving juicy moments to men. (At one point, Grace arranges a meeting with a gruff, tough-talking public defender because she wants to get his “read” on people. Grace is a trained clinical psychologist. She is literally paid to read people, but she defers her professional judgment to… this guy?)
It also cannot be overstated how little happens each hour. “The Undoing” is so focused on one, way-too-simple question — “Did the suspect kill her or not?” — that it forgets to introduce reasonable alternatives or other relevant themes. Instead, it ends each episode with a twist and fills the rest of the time by a) explaining the last twist, b) listening to the suspect shouting that they didn’t do it (again), and c) Grace walking.
If anyone cares enough to put in the time, “The Undoing” could produce a few funny supercuts: one of Grace walking aimlessly, another of Grace being needlessly frightened by her son, and, sadly, another of various actors’ peculiar elocution. Kidman’s American accent remains… passable, but Donald Sutherland steals the audible spotlight for how he pronounces “cocksucker” in Episode 4. Grant leans in to his rakish charm and walks a convincing tightrope when it comes to Jonathan’s perceived duality, but a few of his bigger choices will only work depending on how the last episode plays out.
Even if “The Undoing” finds its way around to acknowledging its rich, white protagonists are bad people — and they definitely are — it’s already too late to turn the six-episode series into a scathing censure on privilege. Too much time is spent manipulating our pity for the not-at-all-poor therapist and her entitled family, rather than inviting that empathy with any designs to undercut it. Wealth offers so many advantages in America, but it can’t buy our attention.
“The Undoing” premieres Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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