The Undoing Took All the Wrong Cues From Big Little Lies

Aside from the kaleidoscopic nuance of Nicole Kidman’s hair, much of what unites David E. Kelley’s Big Little Lies and The Undoing are questions of upper-crust aesthetics. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Perhaps we should talk first about the bougie similarities between the houses in Big Little Lies and The Undoing — the former’s multimillion-dollar mansions that look like community colleges, with their wraparound glass façades, ocean views, and apartment-size walk-in closets, and the latter’s storied brownstones and art-filled penthouses, complete with grand pianos, chandeliers, and uniformed waitstaff. Or maybe it’s worth diving into the wardrobes of the Monterey Five compared with that of Harvard-educated psychotherapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) — enough athleisure to rival the cost of a small car, or all the velvet dusters you would need to outfit an Anthropologie holiday display, or so many designer handbags that Cardi B would take notice. And of course, there’s the Kidman overlap, with her Emmy-winning turn as domestic-abuse survivor Celeste Wright in Big Little Lies and her work as confused wife, protected daughter, and defensive mother Grace in The Undoing. No, her hair isn’t the same. But do we deserve to indulge in Kidman’s naturally auburn curls all the time? We do not! We have to work for that!

Aside from the kaleidoscopic nuance of Kidman’s extensions, so much of what unites David E. Kelley’s two series about the worlds in which wealthy, mostly white women wield power and exert influence are questions of upper-crust aesthetics: the price tags of their vacation homes; their professions, and their husbands’; the elaborateness of their children’s birthday parties. But while Kelley’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies maintained the socioeconomic largesse already written into the source material, his attempt to shove Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known into a Big Little Lies frame demonstrates the limitations — and diminishing returns — of copying one’s own success.

Kelley’s résumé before co-executive producers Kidman and Reese Witherspoon announced that he was helming Big Little Lies might have made him seem like an unlikely fit for a story about rich women tied together by the friendships of their children, their preference for hanging out at a certain coffee shop, and their involvement in the death of one of their husbands. Kelley’s degree from the Boston University School of Law informed his cornering of the courtroom-drama genre during the 1980s and 1990s, from his start as a writer on L.A. Law through his creation of The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, and Boston Legal. (Other important Kelley artifacts: Doogie Howser, M.D. and Chicago Hope.)

Big Little Lies was a different kind of challenge. A more female-dominated cast than any other of Kelley’s preceding works, with starring roles for Kidman and Witherspoon and supporting roles for eventual fan favorite Laura Dern, plus Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz. A need for nuance when exploring the experiences of those characters as they suffered sexual abuse and domestic violence, engaged in marital infidelity, sparred with each other over the education of their elementary-school-aged sons and daughters, and eventually banded together in support and defense of one another. And the series’s somewhat unapologetic depiction of the cocoon that money can provide, captured by the shock the women felt as their story of Perry Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death being an accident wasn’t immediately accepted by Detective Adrienne Quinlan (Merrin Dungey).

Big Little Lies wasn’t like anything Kelley had done before, but the story benefited from his well-rounded characterizations, the cast’s steady performances, and director Jean-Marc Vallée’s reliance on artfully edited flashbacks, which helped contextualize these women’s motivations, alliances, and enmities. Most importantly, though, the first season’s central mystery of who killed Perry Wright was not its primary motivator. More attention was paid to Kidman’s Celeste challenging herself in therapy, deciding to leave her husband, and trusting her friends with her secrets. Our emotional connection was with Celeste’s fear for her sons’ safety, and the inadequacy Witherspoon’s Madeline felt in her marriage, and the trauma worked through by Kravitz’s Bonnie and Woodley’s Jane, and the domestic frustrations of Dern’s Renata despite her successful climb up the corporate ladder. Big Little Lies spent time building these women, and when the show invited us into their hearts and minds, we came away knowing their fears and desires. We knew who they were.

The primary failing of The Undoing, however, is that the same interiority is never given to Grace Fraser. In adapting You Should Have Known, Kelley abandons the Grace Sachs from the novel. Gone is the culturally Jewish upper-middle-class therapist who realizes quite quickly that her husband cheated on and abandoned her, who decides to protect her son at all costs by abandoning New York City and relocating to a modest lakeside cottage, and who rediscovers herself and her lost relationships with family and friends while accepting the depth to which she abided her husband’s deception. There is little mystery in You Should Have Known because Grace never stands by her man; instead, in the eternal words of Kelly Taylor, she chooses herself, and the novel follows her rebuilding her life.

Curiously, although that introspective journey is very much what Celeste Wright goes through in both seasons of Big Little Lies, that element of the narrative is not what Kelley chose to re-create in The Undoing. Instead, his mimicry of his prior work is primarily superficial: another exclusive circle of prestige, another rotating array of suspects, and another protracted legal subplot. As novels, neither Big Little Lies nor You Should Have Known includes any time spent in a courtroom, focusing more on the personal and professional lives of its female characters rather than their problems with the law. But Kelley, as is his custom, added them in both series: in the second season of Big Little Lies, during which Celeste faces off against Meryl Streep’s disbelieving mother in law, Mary Louise Wright; and in The Undoing, the latter episodes of which are entirely about legal wheeling and dealing.

That’s the Kelley brand, but so many shared qualities make for overly familiar viewing. In Kelley’s changes to You Should Have Known, Grace becomes extremely moneyed, as Celeste was; Grace attends “fancy glam” fundraisers for her child’s school as one of the popular moms, as Celeste did; Grace never ventures outside of her exclusive circle, as Celeste also abstained from doing. But those qualities weren’t what made Celeste such a compelling character. Her mixture of fragility and steeliness, her loyalty to her friends, and her increasing confidence were integral inspirations for our empathy. In contrast, Grace in The Undoing never once exhibits any consistency; to do so would derail Kelley’s ocean of red herrings. She swears she’ll never stand by husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant), but then she does. She attempts to smear Elena (Matilda De Angelis), the woman Jonathan might have killed, although she has an inkling of the intensity of Jonathan’s lies. She avoids answering detectives’ questions, and she withholds information. She fears for Henry once Jonathan threatens him, but then lets him out of her sight, setting up Jonathan’s kidnapping of their son in the finale’s final minutes. And in the series’s most “eat the rich” moment, Grace complains that her father isn’t doing enough for her, although he gave her conniving husband $500,000, is paying for her son’s $50,000 tuition, and eventually ponies up an additional $2 million to get her husband out of jail.

Taken altogether, that erratic behavior never secures our investment or our sympathy. In prioritizing unbelievable twists rather than steady character development, Kelley re-creates Grace as a shell of Celeste, making her the hollow center of The Undoing. Grace wears the same kind of clothes as Celeste, and has access to the same powerful allies as Celeste, and lives in the same sort of mansions as Celeste. But Kidman’s performance here is mostly one of wide, shocked eyes and blank, inexpressive despair; her Grace rarely, if ever, talks about herself, her emotions, or her decisions. Everything rotates around Jonathan. Director Susanne Bier uses the same combination of extreme close-ups and flashbacks as Vallée, but the images again serve as false flags — ways for Kelley to confuse rather than enlighten us. The Undoing is ostensibly a story about Grace, as a wife and daughter and mother, attempting to understand how thoroughly her life is falling apart. But in reality, on an episode-to-episode basis, Kelley paid far more attention to Grant’s deceitful doctor: his sexual relationship with the murdered Elena; his kindness toward young cancer patients; his goofy jokes with son Henry (Noah Jupe); his insistence of innocence to defense attorney Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni). Grace Fraser became a footnote in her own story.

All of that obfuscation leads to an anticlimactic finale that Kelley and Bier have hinted could lead to a second season that more closely follows the events of You Should Have Known — but to what end? Kelley re-created the elitism of Big Little Lies when adapting You Should Have Known into The Undoing, but neither its introspective spirit nor its curiosity about the inner lives of women. Without any of that detail, The Undoing mimicked all the wrong things from Big Little Lies, and the result was a whodunit as blunt as that sculpting hammer and as unfulfilling as that dishwasher explanation.

More on The Undoing

See All
The Undoing Took All the Wrong Cues From Big Little Lies