Features and Columns · Reviews · TV

A Star-Studded Cast Can’t Save HBO’s ‘The Undoing’

Maybe it’s time to retire the bougie crime soap.
The Undoing
By  · Published on October 23rd, 2020

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at David E. Kelley’s new HBO series, The Undoing.

Not every soapy, post-Gone Girl domestic thriller put to the page deserves a prestigious pay-cable adaptation. The Undoing, a six-episode series from David E. Kelley and based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known, is a victim of this particular trend fatigue. But it also has a few problems that have little to do with its timing.

Riding on the narrative coattails of adapted series Little Fires Everywhere and Big Little Lies (the latter of which was also created by David E. Kelley), The Undoing follows an affluent, dysfunctional family as they face accusations in the wake of a shocking tragedy. It’s unrelatable and unrealistic, and unlike the two aforementioned series, which address real issues despite their economic pedestals, this one doesn’t seem particularly interested in examining its privileged perspective.

Nicole Kidman (another Big Little Lies vet) stars as Grace Fraser, an in-demand couples therapist in New York who has a habit of telling her patients that their predicaments are their own fault. Grace’s husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), is a beloved children’s oncologist, while their son, Henry (Noah Jupe), attends the prestigious Reardon school. Altogether, they’re an ideal yet uninteresting portrait of glossy success. That is until a gruesome murder threatens to tear their picture-perfect life to pieces.

While The Undoing strings together just enough surprises to keep viewers interested episode-to-episode, its writing and direction are both muddled, making for an occasionally unpleasant viewing experience. Susanne Bier (Bird Box) directs every episode, and she punctuates moments of intensity with oddly heavy-handed cinematic tactics, including sudden close-ups, slow motion, flashbacks, and audio overlap. Rather than invoking the intended emotion, these unsubtle camera tricks take viewers out of the story and make serious moments unintentionally funny.

Kelley’s scripts vary wildly in quality. While earlier episodes have major lulls in pacing, the courtroom-set fifth episode is genuinely engrossing, hopefully leading into a finale that will surprise fans of the book (only the first five episodes were made available to press). The entire series is consistent in its lack of realism, though, as nearly every major character at one point or another makes a decision that goes against all reason. If you want a show that’ll make you yell at your TV screen in bafflement, The Undoing is for you.

The series has one thing going for it: a stacked cast. Donald Sutherland plays Grace’s father, and it’s a pleasure to see him on-screen even if the writing rarely matches his inimitable presence. Talented young Jupe is also always a welcome addition to any ensemble, and Matilda De Angelis is appropriately entrancing as the character at the center of the mystery.

As headliners, though, Kidman and Grant lack the chemistry needed to play a couple who are drawn together as often as they’re pulled apart. Grant’s character, in particular, is written with a charming likability that the actor — oddly, as his picture may as well appear in the dictionary next to the entries for “charming” and “likable” — for once doesn’t bring to the table.

The Undoing leaves clues to a more interesting version of the series scattered through it like breadcrumbs. The HBO trailer would lead you to believe that the series is an interrogation of income inequality, ending with an assertion from lawyer Hayley (Noma Dumezweni) that “they think they can get away with it because they’re rich.”

If the series is an attempted critique of capitalism, though, it’s slow to get started. At one point, Henry watches news commentary that rightfully calls his family’s situation a case of white privilege. Another time, he sees a Black family tearfully embrace before the younger member, a prisoner, is led away. Without any connective tissue, these potentially meaningful observations about the biases of mass incarceration are little more than a glimpse into the more impactful series that could have been.

At this point, the market is well-flooded with books and shows that follow rich, white American women through murder cases and other mysterious crimes. The narratives, often already thin to begin with, lose substance each time they’re re-told. The Undoing makes a good case, just not the one it thinks it does. It’s a convincing argument that it’s past time to tell a different story.

Related Topics: , , ,

Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)