tv review

The Frigid Allure of The Undoing

Very quickly in The Undoing, what looks like a smooth marriage between Grace and Jonathan Fraser (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant) steers directly into some icebergs. Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO

It is chilly in The Undoing. This is true in a literal sense: The first episode, which debuts Sunday on HBO, opens during a Manhattan winter and features imagery of a bundled-up Hugh Grant, who plays respected oncologist Jonathan Fraser, walking through Central Park, and Nicole Kidman as Jonathan’s wife, Grace, bustling separately through the city in a gorgeous, deep crimson coat, their breaths expelling visible puffs into the air. Immediately this series, written by David E. Kelley and loosely adapted from the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, commands you to watch it from beneath a heavy blanket, while wearing fuzzy socks, sipping hot chamomile tea or red wine, and not taking your eyes off the screen.

There’s also a frigid sensibility in The Undoing, one that takes its time to slip through the drama’s unsealed cracks and be fully felt. You start to sense it in the magnificent homes depicted in the series, including the Frasers’ townhouse and the massive penthouse that belongs to Grace’s father Franklin (Donald Sutherland), which look beautiful but, upon closer inspection, seem almost too impeccable, like they were designed by uninvolved third parties.

There is certainly something chilling in the grisly murder of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), the mother of a student at the elite private school attended by the Frasers’ son, Henry (Noah Jupe). That horrible incident starts a chain of events that begin to chip away at the Frasers’ happy, privileged veneer. Very quickly, what looks like a smooth marriage between Jonathan and Grace steers directly into some icebergs.

Make that several icebergs. Each of the first five episodes — there are six total — ends with yet another dramatic reveal that adds a new layer of complexity to an already complicated swirl of betrayals and lies. As an HBO series, The Undoing will unfold on a weekly basis, but rest assured that if all the episodes were available at once, you’d binge this thing in less than a weekend. Directed by Susanne Bier with the same gravitas and air of prestige-suspense she brought to The Night Manager, The Undoing may not radiate warmth but it does unspool a narrative that works like a rare earth magnet. Once pulled toward it, you can’t detach.

Given all the points of connectivity between the two, The Undoing may seem, at first, like the East Coast version of Big Little Lies. Kelley and Kidman worked on both series. Both explore the dynamics within a hoity-toity private-school community and even feature significant scenes that take place at a school fundraiser, though the fundraiser in The Undoing may remind viewers more of an episode of the Nice White Parents podcast than the Audrey and Elvis party in Big Little Lies. Both also hold the reveal of their killers until their finales. (At least I hope this show reveals who the murderer is in episode six.)

But the tone of The Undoing is much more serious — the humor that runs through Big Little Lies is entirely missing here — and the series is also much less intimate, by design. Big Little Lies made a point of drilling into its characters and extracting all their absurdity and surprising vulnerability for all to see. Grace Fraser, on the other hand, is impenetrable. She barely seems to know herself, which makes it hard to get a firm handle on who she is. But her lack of a grip on her existence is also precisely the point.

In the first episode, Grace comes across as one of the more grounded, less judgmental mothers in the Reardon School community, especially when compared to higher-strung, more gossipy counterparts like her friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe), the closest thing this show has to a Renata Klein. In her work as a therapist, though, Grace can be surprisingly blunt. During a couples counseling session, she suggests that a man who cheated on his husband did it on purpose, prompting the husband to walk out of her office. Grace is happy to dissect the psychological forces at work in others, but far less inclined to examine them in herself or those closest to her.

After police begin investigating the death of Elena Alves, the mother of a Reardon scholarship recipient and a woman with whom Grace has a couple of odd, charged encounters, Grace’s practiced demeanor begins to slide. Under questioning by police, particularly Detective Joe Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), she can be tearful and unmoored one moment, then defensive the next, her lips pursing in defiance at an interrogation she deems too aggressive. Often the camera closes in tight on Kidman’s eyes, a Hitchcockian flourish that makes sure every darting, doubtful glance is placed under the equivalent of a magnifying glass.

Kidman has always had a gift for unearthing the simultaneous fragility and tungsten-level strength within each of the women she plays, and this role gives her an excellent opportunity to do it again. Wearing the long, red, coiled tresses that once were her signature, Kidman gives herself over fully to Grace’s brain-fogged mix of despair and stubbornness.

Grant is also convincing and, appropriately, infuriating as a man who skates the thinnest of lines between charmer and scoundrel, a space where the actor tends to do his best work. Sutherland is fascinating and fantastic as Franklin, infusing this old-money man with enough multitudes to make him seem regretful and compassionate in episode three, then calculating and scary in episode four. The common denominator in all of these performances is their unpredictability. The audience has no full idea what any of these characters are capable of doing, or have already done.

The trajectory of The Undoing is all forward motion, driven by the whodunnit element, without much deep diving below the surface. Obvious issues related to class and ethnicity are raised by The Undoing but only lightly skimmed. Elena, a Latina artist who lives in Harlem with her husband and two children, clearly does not possess the same advantages as the other Reardon mothers, but the series doesn’t reckon with that much. It doesn’t even give Elena much of a personality. As in too many crime dramas, her existence within this story is defined by her victimhood. It may serve the murkiness surrounding her death to keep certain details vague, but it doesn’t serve the character, one of the few nonwhite people in the show.

In short, The Undoing has the potential to be more substantive than it is, and it’s a little disappointing that it isn’t. Still, it offers a moody sense of atmosphere, a welcome reminder of New York’s pre-pandemic days (the series was shot in 2019), fine acting, and a seductive mystery that will likely lure in even viewers who try to resist it. It is chilly in here, yes. Nevertheless, you’ll still want to stay a while.

The Frigid Allure of The Undoing