HBO miniseries is a fine legal potboiler with prestige branding
If The Undoing, currently airing on HBO, came out, say, 20 years ago, it would be a fine potboiler legal thriller with acting accolades to spare. As a six-episode cable miniseries in 2020, it still has the acting chops and the drama one would expect from HBO. It just doesn’t quite have enough of either of those things to justify six hours’ worth of TV.
Nicole Kidman, returning to HBO with her Big Little Lies showrunner and writer David E. Kelley, stars as Dr. Grace Fraser, a New York therapist married to Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a pediatric oncologist at a major hospital in the city. They live in an old-money NYC apartment. They have a teenage son Henry (Noah Jupe) who goes to a fancy private school. Their biggest arguments in the first episode are about whether or not why should get a dog. The Frasers are the picture of wealthy domestic bliss. That picture comes crashing down one fall when Jonathan is the prime suspect in the murder of Elena (Matilda De Angelis), the mother of one of the kids at Henry’s school. As Grace learns more about the case and why her husband is a suspect, she starts to question her whole world.
That formula sounds familiar for HBO. If it seems like the prestige network is trying on an old familiar show the way Kidman wears all those cozy sweaters in The Undoing, it’s by design. HBO is taking some of its best secrets to success — book adaptations, Kidman, Kelley, abstract framing and shot choices, domestic drama and mystery –and remixing them.
People are obviously looking for that sort of thing; part of the fun of watching The Undoing is realizing there aren’t that many serious dramas for adults anymore. It’s based on the book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, who co-wrote with Kelley for all six episodes. I haven’t read the book, and so far have only seen the three episodes that have aired on HBO, but it seems like Kelley and Korelitz are more interested in a direct translation of the book to the screen instead of an adaptation for TV.
Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies, two HBO shows that most closely match the tone of The Undoing, spent time with secondary characters away from the main narrative. In some cases, like in the second season of Big Little Lies, those shows even expanded on the book’s plot to give some characters more of a story. Halfway through the Undoing, the motivations of many characters are still unclear and the few new details revealed in the plot feel like too little, too late.
And for a show all about the legal troubles of the upper echelon of wealthy New Yorkers, The Undoing so far seems unconcerned in exploring the fact that the Frasers are so deftly able to navigate the legal system the way they do because of their privilege. The only acknowledgment of the racial divide between the Frasers and Elena happens when one of Grace’s friends suggests that since Elena is Latina, her death must have been cartel-related.
But I don’t want to write it off just yet because it’s a throwback to a time when prestige legal thrillers were popular, and because it’s so much fun to watch Kidman and Grant act, even when the project doesn’t give them much to do. The Undoing is a showcase for the way Kidman reacts to heartbreaking news and the way Grant evokes sympathy for jerks. And Edgar Ramírez, who plays a detective investigating Elena’s murder, expresses so much with so few words. De Angelis, who so far has only been seen alive in the first episode, evokes strength and vulnerability in the few scenes she’s in. Donald Sutherland also shows up as Grace’s father, and it’s a relief to see him play a concerned father again, instead of an evil President of a mythical dystopia.
As it stands right now, The Undoing is a familiar fall show with actors we’ve seen before performing story beats we’ve read before. Sometimes that’s enough. We’ll see if it sticks the landing.