After the success of Big Little Lies, a darkly comic HBO series on Sky Atlantic, adapted from a novel, about rich women whose lives unravel, creator David E Kelley has reunited with one of its stars, Nicole Kidman, for The Undoing. It’s a darkly comic HBO series on Sky Atlantic, adapted from a novel, about rich women whose lives unravel.
Rather than a public school in California, this time the action is centred on a private school in New York. Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a shrink with a massive flat, a wealthy father (Donald Sutherland) and a nice violin-playing son, Henry (Noah Jupe). Best of all, she has an English husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), an oncologist and, if you can believe it, something of a roguish charmer. With all these invisible ailments in the air, you know it won’t be long before the physicians are obliged to heal themselves.
At the start of the first episode Grace and the other school mothers are planning a fundraising auction. As a gesture of goodwill, they have invited Elena Alves (Matilda de Angelis), the mother of a scholarship boy. It’s a mistake. Elena compensates for her lack of Waspish accoutrements with a sexual magnetism that sends the other women into a spiral of self-doubt. That’s before the night of the auction itself, which ends in disaster.
The Undoing’s best moments, as when Elena first whips out a boob to the shock and envy of the other mothers, are comic. Grant and Kidman could play these parts without a script, she the poised beauty coming to terms with catastrophe, he the twinkling eel, always with a quip at hand. “Manhattan is a lonely place,” Grace says. “When you think about it, we don't have a lot of close friends.”
“It's only because we hate everyone,” Jonathan replies. Grant obviously relishes these roles, and at times it seems as if his bumble-bumble Richard Curtis early career was all designed to lay the groundwork for his recent performances, in which he gets to subvert our expectations and play men with dark hearts.
Grace and her friends, chief among them Sylvia Steineitz (Lily Rabe) are intelligent enough to know that they are awful, but not minded to do anything about it. It’s visually refreshing, too, within the glossy confines of the genre. The director is The Night Manager’s Susanne Bier. Together with her director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle, she shows New York in surprising angles, which offer glimpses of the world beyond the Frasers’ rarefied bubbles.
The Undoing has the makings of a keen satire, in which these people slowly learn the extent of their self-deceit. As the plot starts to turn, however, and lawyers and policemen are involved, the programme’s satisfyingly deadpan touches are tangled up in its desire to be a more conventional thriller. The arrival of Edgar Ramirez as Detective Mendoza ought to inject pep, but instead you’re left with the sense that the cops are here to break up the party. Where Big Little Lies found a distinctive voice, The Undoing’s various virtuoso sections never quite play in concert.