With shows such as Big Little Lies and Succession it feels almost as though HBO have created a whole new genre for us to enjoy. We get to peer into the lives of the wealthy elite, and see that despite all of the trappings of an ideal life they have it far worse than we do. Their latest entry into this pantheon of socialite schadenfreude is The Undoing.
Written and produced by David E. Kelley, it stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as wife and husband Grace and Jonathan Fraser. (It’s worth remembering that Kidman also starred in Big Little Lies which was coincidentally also created by Kelley.) Grace and Jonathan have it all; both are successful professionals, with Grace effortlessly balancing her therapy practice with fundraising galas and Jonathan a top of his field doctor specialising in child cancer. A wonderful son, gorgeous home, and to top it all off still manage to maintain a sex life. Perfect. That is until Jonathan becomes the chief suspect in a murder case.
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The best word to describe this series is sumptuous. Everything about it is designed to draw us into a world of glamour and riches. Beautifully framed tracking shots of well dressed, attractive stars taking meandering walks around pristine parts of New York swaddled in designer jackets break up equally beautifully framed shots of the same attractive stars in indoor clothing, having intense discussions with each other surrounded by pristine furniture. The main drama stems from the fact that though Grace is able to cut through the barriers and defences of her clients with the precision of a surgeon, it seems she never really knew her husband. What a bitterly ironic pill to swallow. Good thing she can afford the finest wine to wash it down with.
Of course, this is a thriller designed to mislead you, yet there is a difference between misdirection and bluff and haphazard weirdness. Characters taking seemingly unmotivated or idiosyncratic actions might keep people guessing – even if it is a cheap trick – but only in the short term. It’s fine to create stereotype characters to tear down, but when you’re basing your entire series on them they need more flesh than we are provided to hold our attention. After the first couple of episodes it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen next, and not in a good way. Due to Kelley and Kidman’s involvement it’s hard to not draw comparisons to the excellent Big Little Lies, and this sadly comes up short. The reason the first was so compelling was the realisation of and growth we saw in the central roles. The same cannot be said here.
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There is one aspect that needs to be mentioned. The sexualisation of violence. HBO has a reputation for high quality shows, but also ones of an ‘adult’ nature. Yet there is a line between ‘adult’ and ‘irresponsible’. The goal may be to have the audience question their own views on the blurring of lines between pleasure and pain, sex and violence, but throughout the series it feels like watching a comedian who has told a particularly taboo joke without owning the aftermath. Once again the comparison to Big Little Lies rears its familiar head. There Kidman’s character, Celeste Wright, is the victim of domestic violence. It is handled intelligently and compassionately, the complexities and difficulties of that kind of relationship brought out through the series. Here, sexual violence is yet another tag, used as an easy way to titillate, cast doubt on characters, and finally paint the killer as a monster without ever examining the subject fully.
None of this is to say that The Undoing is bad, in fact it’s quite good. It’s just that throughout the whole thing there is a strong whiff of pandering. A successful formula has been discovered, and it’s being stuck to. Yet other aspects do shine. Susanne Bier’s confident direction shows a superb eye for intimacy and wrings every drop of tension from each scene. Other than Kidman who, despite being an executive producer as well as the lead actor, feels oddly detached from everything going on, the cast do a remarkable job.
Grant gives a more than solid performance, initially playing into the kind of character we’re used to seeing, he quickly shifts gear and anyone expecting bumbling 90’s Hugh is going to be surprised. The supporting cast are more than up to the task asked of them, with special mentions for Noah Jupe bringing a mature and rounded performance and Noma Dumezweni bringing a soulfulness to what could have been yet another a cookie-cutter cynical defence attorney. Yet the stand out is veteran actor Donald Sutherland. Playing Franklin Reinhardt, Grace’s father, his imperious, elitist, almost regal characterisation steals every scene he is in.
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The Blu-ray special features are, sadly, nothing special, though we do have to bear in mind they have been created under Covid restrictions. They include an ‘introduction’ from Grant and Kidman – oddly found on disc 2 – which is in reality a short, informal back and forth interview between the two. ‘Creating the Undoing’ is a short teaser for the series, and finally there is ‘Undoing Revelations’, a series of cast and crew interviews going into some depth on key scenes or character choices, but cut together in such a way that it’s difficult to get continuity of thought as, instead of focusing on each person being interviewed, instead we get small snippets of each person talking about whichever aspect the section is about. For a story selling itself as a complex psychological thriller, there is a disturbing lack of depth here.
In the end The Undoing does enough to entertain. The best advice is to pour yourself a red wine and dive in head first. Don’t question why characters are doing what they’re doing, instead enjoy the richness and spectacle of it all. HBO have provided us with our very own coliseum where, instead of gladiators hacking each other apart, or unfortunates thrown to the lions for our amusement, we get to enjoy the modern equivalent: sexy, rich people having to endure their own perfect lives being torn to shreds by lions of their own creation. However, don’t expect it to become a perennial favourite. Those who live by the formula, die by the formula, and there are other shows that do exactly the same thing, only better.
The Undoing: An HBO Limited Series is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 22nd March from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.