The Undoing Is a Tepid Effort to Relive the Glory of Big Little Lies

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The first two episodes of HBO’s The Undoing are great. Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, an Upper East Side mom with fabulous hair, an even more fabulous wardrobe, a silver-fox husband (Hugh Grant), and a kitchen to die for. In the first episode—the episode before the titular undoing—she goes about her day, seeing clients for therapy in private practice, prepping for her son’s (Noah Jupe) elite private school’s fundraiser, attending a luxurious gym class, and finally, donning an irididescent, pleated gown and an embroidered cape coat for the fundraiser itself, in a high-rise space overlooking Manhattan.

At any other time, the voyeuristic quality of David E. Kelley’s scripts—which, as with Big Little Lies, bring the viewer into the interior chambers of the ultra-rich—would be a delicious pleasure. Right now, starved as we are for gossip, intimacy, and watching other people, it’s almost pornographically satisfying, a glimpse into a haute life that doesn’t even currently exist. (Kelley adapted The Undoing from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known, though it appears to take significant departures from the book’s plot.)

Almost immediately, at the final planning meeting for the fundraiser, Kelley immerses us into bitchy rich-wife gossip, both detestable and addictive, with six-odd other mothers from Rearden, which is the sort of private school where all the kids wear blazers with the school seal on them. In another gorgeous interior, they drink coffee from china cups and complain about other moms, all under the guise of helping the community by trying to raise money for underprivileged kids to attend Rearden alongside their own rather privileged children.

And you think, yes, yes, this is what I signed up for. Petty rich people drama. A cluster of backstabbing overachieving helicopter parents. Expensive bedsheets and old furniture and the type of closet that has discreet, automatic lighting. Nicole Kidman carelessly washing her face in a silk kimono that costs more than two months’ rent. The frigid rigidity of the upper classes. It’s fitting that what sets the plot in motion is a faux pas. When a newcomer to the planning committee—notably young, Latina, and hot—pulls out a boob to breastfeed her newborn at the table, you can almost snack on the discomfiting erotic tension infused in the scene, as the other moms struggle to control their facial expressions but can’t stop staring, either.

The boob mom, Elena (Matilda De Angelis), seems to be of a markedly different social class than the other women. Perhaps for that reason, whenever Grace encounters her, Elena seems to be on the verge of tears. As soon as they meet, Elena fixates on Grace’s kindness, nearly overwhelming the other woman with her smoky eyeliner, bedhead hair, and lack of boundaries about nudity. The next time they meet, they’re in the gym locker room, where Elena confesses her complex feelings about being a mom at Reardon while standing entirely naked. Kidman plays Grace’s reactions like a finely tuned instrument, oscillating between horror and titillation, revulsion and fascination, while director Susanne Bier brings us inside Grace’s eyes as she tries to take in Elena’s body. The relationship between the two women sees ripe with possibility.

But rather quickly, The Undoing changes tacks. Two major events occur in the final moments of the first episode, and Grace spends the second episode trying to untangle them. But before she can get very far, she’s waylaid by brooding (and quietly smoldering) detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who begins asking a lot of questions she’s unable to answer about her husband Jonathan.

This is more surprising to her than the audience—Hugh Grant’s never played a role where he didn’t have some secret or other to hide—and with flashes of brilliance, The Undoing entraps you in Grace’s confusion and dawning awakening. Grace takes her son and flees to another spacious Manhattan mansion—this time the one belonging to her father, who is played by a prodigiously eyebrowed Donald Sutherland. As Grace broods in first one expensive real estate venture and then another—she ends up in the Hamptons by the end of the second episode—the show does a remarkable job of demonstrating how the walls are closing in around her perfect life, which sets her adrift in seas of emotion she doesn’t seem capable of understanding. Back in her father’s house, she’s infantilized; when she attempts to mother her son, she seems out of her depth. It’s a different tone from the first episode, more crime drama than social commentary, but it’s still engaging.

Then—bizarrely and rather disappointingly—the show becomes a courtroom drama. By the fourth of the six episodes, gone are the bitchy moms. Gone are the fantastically unnecessary interiors. Gone, even, is the unnecessarily attractive ill-tempered Detective Mendoza, whose antagonistic interrogation gave Kidman so much to snobbishly be offended by. Grant gives the show something to chew on—his role gives him a lot of latitude to weaponize his natural oozing charm, revealing new sides of his personality with seemingly every episode. But as the show leans into legal strategy and the dreary interiors of courtrooms, it leaches out all the nasty fun that made the series so gripping in the first place. A bad man getting away with a bad thing? Lawyers obfuscating the wheels of justice? It’s all too familiar. And perhaps this is just 2020 talking, but it’s a little exhausting, too. The story seems to fly on greased rails for the first two episodes, only to slow down to a punishing grind by the fifth.

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