HBO’s “The Undoing” is Glossy, Gorgeous High Drama

Posted on October 13, 2020

The Undoing is coming to HBO and it may just be the television addiction that sees you through the rest of the year. It’s twisty, devious, plot-turning fun with Nicole Kidman in her acting sweet spot as a wealthy woman on the verge of snapping, Hugh Grant at his most maddening, a plot that’s impossible to predict, and a packed, gorgeously vibrant, Before Times version of New York City that will make your heart ache to see. It’s got all the trappings of guilty-pleasure television with a prestige television veneer.

It’s rich people – mostly mothers – with great skin and extravagant problems hiding or uncovering dark secrets while wearing beautiful outfits and swanning their way through one stunning townhouse or penthouse after another. Kidman is back in the gorgeous red curls that made her famous, wearing drop-dead coat after drop-dead coat and making a succession of silk dresses feel like normal, practical day wear. The easy comparison would be to Kidman’s Emmy-winning turn in Big Little Lies and there’s certainly a shared DNA between the two shows; not just Kidman herself, but David E. Kelley, who wrote both series. You’d be advised not to expect too much of BLL’s biting observations about the silliness of upper class social conventions, though. The Undoing is far less interested in looking at the lives of the rich critically or with humor and far more about keeping the audience unbalanced with one twist or shock after another. Every episode ends with some stunning cliffhanger in which it is revealed that Everything You Know Is Wrong, which makes the series as a whole extremely easy to digest and perfectly addictive.

Susanne Bier (Bird Box, The Night Manager) directed all six episodes, which gives the series a uniformity of style, themes and choices that make each episode feel like a new chapter in the same book – which is as it should be, since the show is adapted from the 2014 novel You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Bier is very good at subtly demonstrating the stifling smallness of the upper ends of social class in New York  and the paranoia among the very wealthy that every aspect of their lives is observed and judged by their peers, if not the entire city. There are so many arresting shots of neighborhoods and skylines that look more like miniatures in a snow globe than the real cityscape; more than enough to underline that fishbowl sense all of the characters are feeling. There’s no denying that the show lingers on its story at times, however. While the cliffhangers keep you coming back for more, it’s true that the story itself didn’t necessarily require six hours to tell. On the other hand, if you’d give anything to walk up and down the streets of New York as it goes about its business in a world where no one needs a face mask and social distancing means you don’t get invited to the right benefit galas, the lingering may just be good for you right now.

As noted, Nicole Kidman is in her acting sweet spot when she’s playing women of means under tremendous stress. Here, she’s Grace Fraser, a glamorous therapist with an upper class clientele, a celebrated oncologist husband (Grant), a perfect child, and an insanely wealthy father (a coolly creepy and perfect Donald Sutherland). When one of the other mothers who sat on her son’s private school fundraiser committee is found brutally bludgeoned to death, a series of lies and secrets come tumbling out, destroying her sense of herself, her trust in her husband, and her carefully curated life.  Despite being in nearly every scene, with the camera often so tight in on her face it made us instinctively back away and reach for our face masks, she remains a mysterious figure throughout the series, smoothly straddling dual portrayals of a woman at the mercy of the selfishness and sociopathy of others and a woman who has far too many secrets and odd reactions to ever fully earn the audience’s trust.

She’s aided by a fantastic cast; not just the aforementioned Sutherland and Grant (who really is incredibly maddening and charming at the same time; perfect casting for a character who may or may not be a total sociopath), but also Lily Rabe, ably filling in for Reese Witherspoon as the best friend over-achiever mom who’s supportive, but also blunt and judgmental to a point that doesn’t quite make her trustworthy. Best of all – in fact, she’s one of the main reasons to watch – is Noma Dumezweni as the high-priced, high-powered attorney hired to get one very wealthy and powerful character off from a very clear and obviously accurate murder charge; a role she takes on with no small amount of cynicism, a slight amount of disgust, and a cool, sharp, brilliant demeanor that makes hers probably the most riveting performance of the whole endeavor.

Go for the high-wattage cast, gorgeous outfits and stunning homes; stay for the secrets, twists and shocks. The Undoing is perfect entertainment for a cold-weather, stay-at-home time. Grab a blanket and a bottle of wine, marvel at Nicole Kidman’s amazing hair, and get swept up in watching beautiful, sometimes terrible people with lots of money deal with high drama that has nothing to do with you or your life.

 

 

 

 

 

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