This review contains spoilers for HBO’s “The Undoing.”
HBO’s newest crime drama, “The Undoing” (2020), follows many of the network’s usual tropes. As an HBO aficionado, I have always enjoyed its often female-centered dramas focusing on how murder and intrigue affect the lives of wealthy families.
However, how many of these shows can HBO actually make? “The Undoing” focuses on the life of a wealthy family living in Manhattan. Nicole Kidman plays successful psychotherapist Grace Fraser who is married to pediatric oncologist Jonathan (Hugh Grant); together, the couple lives with their young son Henry (Noah Jupe), who attends a prestigious preparatory school. When Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), the mother of a poor scholarship student at Henry’s school, is found murdered, Grace’s husband disappears, leading Grace to realize that nothing is as it seems.
When Jonathan becomes the main suspect of the police investigation after knowledge of his affair with Elena becomes public, Grace finds herself struggling to decide if she should believe her cheating husband is guilty of murder when she feels that the man she knows is incapable of such an act. And yet, the miniseries is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book titled “You Should Have Known” (2014), so maybe Grace should reconsider her husband’s character. That being said, the show deviates greatly from the novel.
Only the first four episodes of the six-episode series have hit HBO at the moment, but I found myself watching them with a tired interest. HBO’s previous shows, “Big Little Lies” (2017–) and “Sharp Objects” (2018), stirred intrigue because of their twisted plots and striking cinematography, coupled with a whole list of other brilliant production details and actor performances.
While “The Undoing” checks all of the same boxes, it seems to be a rather familiar story in a rather familiar HBO fashion. Grant and Kidman deliver emotional, complex performances with a natural ease, but there doesn’t seem to be anything truly thrilling about the series. It was sold as a sort of sensational murder mystery, yet the only chilling elements throughout the series are the clear unraveling of Grace and her continued visions of Elena, who had taken a bizarre interest in Grace prior to her murder.
That is the biggest issue with “The Undoing”: The drama doesn’t feel very dramatic. When I watched “Big Little Lies,” the flashbacks and scenes of minor characters testifying in police interrogation added to the tension and increased the mystery. I spent every week after each episode aired wondering who the murderer could be and who they had murdered. In “Sharp Objects,” the same was true of the show’s own murder mystery and additionally true of its strained family dynamics. But “The Undoing” does not deliver this same intrigue. Sure, murder in high Manhattan society is always interesting, but after the first episode the show drags into rather uneventful courtrooms and conversations. It is beautiful and interesting in its own right, but feels too much a stale half-child of HBO’s previous successes.
That being said, the show is by no means a failure. Kidman’s performance is truly impressive, and one can see the tumult buried under the veneer of Grace’s schooled features. The panic, confusion and betrayal she experiences are probably the most remarkable parts of the series simply because of Kidman’s adept portrayal of each. Beyond the acting performances, the cinematography — courtesy of Anthony Dod Mantle — is also a success. Mantle takes us through the streets of New York City: glittering with the silk and jewels of high society yet tainted by the image of Elena Alves’ body sprawled in a puddle of blood inside her messy basement art studio.
“The Undoing” is more of the same with less of the glamour and spectacle. I’d rather rewatch “Big Little Lies” for the third time.