*Warning: Minor spoilers ahead*
My longtime bestie B. and I settled in to co-watch the first episode of the new HBO miniseries The Undoing the other night from our respective homes, connected via phone. (B. asked that I not use his full name, because as an entertainment reporter, he doesn’t want to “out” his decidedly non-profesh and sacred love for a certain ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise.) I wanted to watch it with him both for his deep scholarship in film and unbridled admiration for Nicole Kidman, the series’ star along with Hugh Grant. Would he help me appreciate—or eviscerate—the thriller? Here’s what we experienced.
1. What’s This Miniseries About?
It’s about big movie stars doing their prestige TV thing. Produced by David E. Kelly who also produced Big Little Lies, this show carries the same expensive scent: wealthy people (a professional couple and their private-school son), fancy locations (a Manhattan townhouse, an arty penthouse) and a murder. B. coos from the beginning about the moody theme music (also part of the BLL formula.) “That’s Nicole singing, isn’t it beautiful?” he says reminding me that I’d also heard her sing in Moulin Rouge.
We joke that I’ll need to count the number of times he gasps from Nicole’s beauty in the episode, and yet I am the first one to involuntarily murmur, Oh! at the opening shot of her looking in the bathroom mirror; even a non-superfan like me has to admit, she’s absolutely luminous. And her return to cascading natural curls suits her.
We follow Nicole downstairs to meet her pediatric oncologist husband (Hugh Grant) and tween son for breakfast in a soaring brownstone parlor. Everyone’s dressed in tweedy rich person day wear, and the room’s walls appear to be expensively refinished original woodwork. (“The show is basically Manhattan porn,” B. observes.) We follow Nicole to her office, where she’s listening to a client in her therapy practice criticize a boyfriend who has done her wrong. “An attractive man comes along, and judgment be gone,” Nicole says, summing up the woman’s behavior. Or is this foreshadowing?
A private-school fundraising meeting follows. Here, our gracious flame-haired Nicole joins a table of affluent blonde women with all the gentleness of field hockey forwards. There’s also a dark-haired mom, Elena Alves, who is new to the group, being whispered about as having a son “on scholarship.” Elena is quiet, tending to the baby in her arms, when she suddenly whips out her boob and begins breastfeeding right at the table where the other women are haggling over silent auction items. There are eye rolls all around…and, not to side with the landed gentry, but B. and I agree there is something “off” about doing this right under the noses of the ladies who lunch.
Later, at the school fundraiser itself, B. and I gasp in unison: Nicole is wearing an appliqued velvet cape over a metallic, pleated gown which reveals tasteful side boob. Oop, now poor Elena runs by, tearful. Even though the fundraiser site, a private home, is as large and bright as an aircraft hangar, Elena and Nicole share a private moment in the powder room, and she thanks Nicole for comforting her, but doesn’t say why she’s crying. (Oh, and when Nicole rides the elevator downstairs with Elena to make sure she's okay, Elena inexplicably takes Nicole's head in her hands and kisses her on the lips to thank her.) A little later, Nicole flashes back on a scene at her gym where Elena, standing in front of her completely nude with her leg perched on a bench, asks Nicole if she makes her feel uncomfortable. Well, Elena is certainly making us viewers uncomfortable, and continues to do so the next morning when her fourth-grader son discovers her gruesomely murdered.
Police begin questioning everyone from the fundraiser, which was the last place Elena was seen. Did Nicole notice anything special, they ask? And when will your husband, who you said never met her, be back from his business trip?
2. So, Will We Watch Again?
With its creepy vibe of foreboding and a central female character in peril whose stability may be in question, this Golden Age of Television drama draws comparisons to the Golden Age of Movies (think Rosemary’s Baby or Dressed to Kill). Here the central figure is played by an Academy Award-winning great (Kidman won in 2002 for The Hours) who is inspired to act up a storm (close-ups of her eyeballs and frightened face are prominent). So the entertainment is twofold: How will the story reveal itself, and also how will our Nicole interpret her character? Add to those pluses Grant, whose late-career renaissance has catapulted him from being just a lightweight rom-com charmer to a layered and believable antihero.
Additionally, we’re introduced to Nicole’s character’s father, played by Donald Sutherland, who before being known as Kiefer’s dad was a respected movie star in ‘70s thrillers including Klute and Don’t Look Now. Why would he be cast unless he’s somehow responsible? Or is Hugh Grant the killer? Maybe instead, Nicole’s character goes into a fugue state and knocks the woman off? You get the feeling there’s no plot twist that’s beyond the pale, and since there are only six episodes in the mini-series, we won’t have to wait too long to find out.
And superfan B.’s assessment? Since Nicole is a gay icon, great beauty and accomplished actor who radiates warmth, he thinks this is exactly what we need to be watching right now. “Nicole is so beautiful and kind and good,” he says. “She makes me think that the world is an okay place.” I’m hoping that her character doesn’t turn out to be a psycho killer or related to a sociopath, for my BFF’s quarantine-era mood uplift. In any case, we’ll definitely keep watching to find out.