Written by David E. Kelley
Directed by Susanne Bier
Air Date: October 25th, 2020
Based on a best selling novel, starring Nicole Kidman, written by David E. Kelley and directed by an A-list director, in this case Susanne Bier, across all six of its episodes, you get the sense that HBO is very clearly wanting another Big Little Lies with The Undoing.
While there a lot of aesthetic similarities, there are also some key differences. Instead of the small community that Liane Moriarty’s novel was the inspiration for, The Undoing takes us into the heart of upper class New York City. The beaches and cliffs have given way to the busy streets, yellow taxis and skyscrapers of the Big Apple, and instead Nicole Kidman is on the other side of the therapist’s room, doling out advice and observations instead of receiving them.
There’s a darkly dreamy title sequence, this time backed with Kidman herself singing a version of Dream a Little Dream of Me, the whole thing has a classy visual look to it, and there’s a dead body in the middle of it all. The difference being this time that The Undoing gets to its dead body a lot faster instead of building itself up through the events that led to it, and instead plunges its central character and the audience into its mystery right by the end of this opening episode which is….mostly fine shall we say.
There’s no doubt that this is fantastically well made as we’ve come to expect from HBO and a production from the Kelley wheelhouse. Susanne Bier, a fantastic director as noted from her work on BBC’s The Night Manager and the Netflix feature film Bird Box, brings a classy veneer to proceedings, even when scenes start to border on accidentally parodying the type of adult erotic thriller that this appears to want to fall in to.
Yes, this is a HBO show so there are the obligatory tits and ass on display, most of it from Matilda De Angelis. Admittedly it never falls too far into the realm of the the leery male gaze that so many other (male directed) HBO shows do, but it still feels like it’s desperately trying to grab you by the shoulders and scream into your face that ‘yes, this is an adult show, look at the boobies’.
Taking its cue from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known, Kelley’s writing here has so many of the hallmarks of what he did with Big Little Lies. While that show is critically acclaimed, I’ve always found myself enjoying it but never really feeling like it was justified in being referred to as one of the greatest television series ever made. Its A-list cast and high production values, not to mention cinematic direction (although the treatment of Andrea Arnold in season two leaves a sour taste that I feel like has never been properly addressed) couldn’t help but draw you in, but Kelley’s writing sometimes felt more akin to a soap opera with the trash levels dialled up, and to a certain extent The Undoing feels like it’s along the same line.
It begins (like so much television nowadays) with an in media res beginning that really adds nothing when the episode swings back around to that part of the narrative. It simply feels like a stylish flourish because that’s what every other television show does nowadays in order to grab you, so there it is. You can tell who the dead body belongs to just by watching the dynamics of everyone on display, although thankfully it doesn’t drag out that potential revelation to the very end, doing so just a little bit past the halfway mark.
Once it does, The Undoing admittedly does start to gets its claws into you, although once again, we’re back in Big Little Lies territory with inquisitive police detectives, questions being asked that there are no answers for yet and lead character Grace learning that her husband isn’t entirely truthful with a misplaced mobile phone and a trip to a medical conference that might be anything but.
The casting of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant is in point here and their gentle easy going chemistry in the early scenes has the feel of a light hearted romantic comedy that you kind of wish this was instead of being another murder mystery that will throw up some quesy revelations that will no doubt be coming over the next couple of weeks. As a murder mystery, one that darkly and gently starts to reveal itself in the final third of the episode, it does start to suck you in, and while one can complain about how Kelley is effectively just concocting another high class, R-rated soap opera here, once the end credits roll, you just nod along to yourself with the realization that you’re going to be coming back to it next week.
The Undoing airs weekly on Sunday nights on HBO in the U.S, and on Monday nights on Sky Atlantic in the U.K.