If you’ve ever been part of a group project at school where each member decides that someone else will pick up the slack — resulting in a half-completed mess that reflects poorly on everyone involved — the new HBO drama The Undoing should send a chill of familiarity down your spine.
It’s almost hard to believe that stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, series writer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and series director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, the Oscar-winning In a Better World) could come up with a show so limp, so generic, so dispiritingly bad as this six-hour drama that only has enough story for a two-hour feature. (Five episodes were sent to critics.) It’s as if all the key decision-makers were in a collective spell, made to trust that someone else would do the work of making their program watchable.
The Undoing is clearly meant to be Big Little Lies: East Coast Edition, with a murder mystery set among the Manhattan private-school set. (So hoity-toity is this milieu, apparently, that father-daughter conversations take place in museum galleries and the only notable music we hear is classical.) Kidman’s Grace Fraser, a high-end therapist, attempts to restrain the ferocious judgment of the other mothers when a showily sexy and significantly younger new mom, Elena (Matilda De Angelis), arrives at the school. (In one of the series’ few funny scenes, a harried parent played by Lily Rabe is outraged that Elena hasn’t overscheduled her way to unhappiness. “You live in New York!” she imagines telling the younger woman. “It’s a crime not to be frantically busy!”)
The debut season of Big Little Lies demonstrated what should’ve been obvious: that mommy melodrama, as with pretty much any genre, can be elevated to prestige fare — artistically ambitious and culturally resonant texts that, in that season’s case, illustrated that the day-to-day lives of ordinary(ish) women could be as harrowing or complicated as anything on Breaking Bad or The Sopranos.
Unfortunately, the projects that most directly owe their existence to that first season have been uncontested letdowns. The unnecessary sophomore year of Big Little Lies fizzled out, with behind-the-scenes clashes between creatives reportedly contributing to its lack of narrative cohesion. Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, featuring Big Little Lies co-star and executive producer Reese Witherspoon, garnered three Emmy nominations, but arguably deflated under the weight of its own portentousness.
But The Undoing — an adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s bestselling novel You Should Have Known — is the worst of these projects: a glacially paced, frustratingly scattered and stubbornly uninteresting drama that’s one of the most disappointing shows I’ve seen all year. It half-asses every one of its modes: as a crime procedural, as a dissection of Upper West Side privilege and snobbery and as an exploration of a woman questioning the most foundational assumptions in her life when her husband, Jonathan (Grant), a dryly charming pediatric oncologist, becomes the number-one suspect in the homicide case.
And when The Undoing eventually becomes a courtroom drama, with Noma Dumezweni playing Jonathan’s white-shoe defense attorney, it’s shocking that Kelley, who has literally hundreds of legal scripts to his name, could come up with something so risible and yet so… boring.
Grace never gets enough characterization to feel like a real person, which makes sympathizing with her difficult, despite the distress of her young son Henry (Noah Jupe) and the steadying calm of her even wealthier father Franklin (Donald Sutherland). Kidman doesn’t deliver a particularly notable performance, and Grant is uncharacteristically grating in the kind of rakish role he’s been understandably typecast in for the past two decades. The remaining supporting actors — Edgar Ramirez as the lead detective on the murder case, Ismael Cruz Cordova as the victim’s widower and Edan Alexander as their son — get even less to do.
Bier captures the wintry yet teeming glamour of a decidedly pre-COVID Manhattan, especially with Grace’s flowy, designer-boho looks, courtesy of costume designer Signe Sejlund and Kidman’s own long, reddish curls (a return to the actress’s signature mane of the ‘90s). But there’s simply not enough happening on screen to sustain tension, and much of the time what is happening veers between the rote and the preposterous.
I was bewildered by the extreme close-ups of Kidman’s eyes that gave me a front-row seat to her optic veins, and when the final screener episode suggested the identity of the killer, I couldn’t help letting out a lengthy cackle. At least it was the most entertained I’d been in five brutally long hours.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Donald Sutherland, Noah Jupe, Edan Alexander, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matilda de Angelis, Noma Dumezweni, Edgar Ramirez
Showrunner: David E. Kelley
Premieres Sunday, Oct. 25, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO