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The Undoing is HBO's failed attempt to reverse-engineer the success of Big Little Lies

  • "Big Little Lies was the right show at the right time," says Judy Berman. "A glossy, star-packed, surprisingly smart murder mystery, it appeared just as it seemed HBO was devolving into the Game of Thrones channel and proved that the brand The Sopranos built could still spin character-driven drama into a cultural phenomenon. Network executives responded by doing what network executives always do: they tried to replicate it. A miniseries adapted from the novel by Liane Moriarty, it delighted fans with a renewal that was never supposed to happen; Meryl Streep joined the cast for the not-bad but not-necessary 2019 sequel. Meanwhile, between the two seasons, HBO hired Lies season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée to helm another show based on a best-selling whodunit, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, featuring another A-list, female-led cast. It was a fantastic adaptation, more potent and profound than its predecessor, albeit a bit too dark for viewers craving more Monterey moms. For a while now, critical and awards darling Succession has filled the role of HBO’s breakout drama. But that doesn’t mean the network is done trying to reverse-engineer another Lies. Its latest attempt, premiering Oct. 25, is The Undoing. Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known, the six-part psychological thriller reunites Lies mastermind David E. Kelley—as creator, writer and showrunner—with star Nicole Kidman. Once again, there’s a big-deal cast and a name director (Susanne Bier of The Night Manager and Bird Box fame). The story features rich, gossipy moms and an elite school and a slowly escalating murder investigation. Yet this time, neither the sharp performances nor the lush window dressing can save scripts littered with predictable plot twists, hoary genre clichés, thin supporting characters and relatively little to say."


    • The Undoing is pretty bad considering all the talent involved: "If you’ve ever been part of a group project at school where each member decides that someone else will pick up the slack — resulting in a half-completed mess that reflects poorly on everyone involved — the new HBO drama The Undoing should send a chill of familiarity down your spine," says Inkoo Kang. "It’s almost hard to believe that stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, series writer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and series director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, the Oscar-winning In a Better World) could come up with a show so limp, so generic, so dispiritingly bad as this six-hour drama that only has enough story for a two-hour feature. (Five episodes were sent to critics.) It’s as if all the key decision-makers were in a collective spell, made to trust that someone else would do the work of making their program watchable."
    • Bizarrely and rather disappointingly, The Undoing goes from a compelling thriller to a courtroom drama: "Gone are the fantastically unnecessary interiors," says Sonia Saraiya. "Gone, even, is the unnecessarily attractive ill-tempered Detective Mendoza, whose antagonistic interrogation gave Kidman so much to snobbishly be offended by. Grant, gives the show something to chew on—his role gives him a lot of latitude to weaponize his natural oozing charm, revealing new sides of his personality with seemingly every episode. But as the show leans into legal strategy and the dreary interiors of courtrooms, it leaches out all the nasty fun that made the series so gripping in the first place. A bad man getting away with a bad thing? Lawyers obfuscating the wheels of justice? It’s all too familiar. And perhaps this is just 2020 talking, but it’s a little exhausting, too. The story seems to fly on greased rails for the first two episodes, only to slow down to a punishing grind by the fifth."
    • The Undoing is one of the most cathartic viewing experiences of 2020: "It’s a little like Oprah, but more chaotic: 'This character is stupid, this character is stupid, EVERY CHARACTER IS STUPID!!!'" says Brandon Katz. "None of this is to say that The Undoing is outright bad. I really liked it, I swear! Kidman and Grant deliver sharp performances in an enigmatic drama with a cavalcade of juicy misdirects that keep you guessing. At a time when your neighbor’s cheery attitude may inexplicably piss you off in the morning, you’ll revel in The Undoing‘s ability to cast doubt on every single character. Susanne Bier’s direction creates a compelling, often dreamy autumnal New York City doused in a sense of worst-case-scenario, which isn’t too far off from what we’re about to face. The show is a crackling mystery that, most importantly, invites you to feel superior in the midst of so much self-made misery. As such, it’s one of the most cathartic watches of the year. I think we, as a species, need this."
    • The Undoing acknowledges its privilege, but then throws a pity party for the 1%: "While The Undoing deploys keywords like 'white privilege' to acknowledge its chosen characters’ entitled perspective, the show is content with flagging them," says Ben Travers. "It has nothing to say about the wealth gap, and takes zero time to explore the actual victims’ perspectives (you know, the son who lost his mother and the dead woman herself). Kidman, as the misguided story’s ill-advised face, gets the worst of it. Her ability to embolden characters with innate delicacy and ferocious power doesn’t translate this time around, as she’s asked to turn an oblivious, jumpy waif into a commanding lead with little more than a constantly worried expression."
    • The Undoing is not as emotionally complex as Big Little Lies, but it's more immediately gripping: "I don’t want to say much more, because the primary pleasure of The Undoing is how it doles out its twists with efficient precision," says Dave Nemetz. "It plays like a compulsively readable page-turner as Grace is pummeled by a relentless barrage of jaw-dropping revelations that reveal serious cracks in the foundation of her marriage. Emmy winner Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) directs all six episodes, and she expertly amplifies the tension with jittery framing and intense close-ups with blurry edges. HBO is sticking with a conventional weekly release, but this show is custom-made for a binge; each episode ends on a stunning cliffhanger that leaves you wanting, no, needing to see more."
    • The Undoing is really worth watching for Kidman and Grant's performances: "There is no Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern or Meryl Streep to distract us from the work at hand, which is to figure out where a new piece of the Nicole Kidman puzzle fits in," says Hank Stuever. "In this one regard, for her loyal fans, The Undoing is worth a watch. Kidman is rivaled occasionally by the craggy yet sympathetically hangdog performance from Grant as the prime suspect. If you haven’t seen his recent works, Grant has aged interestingly into roles that all but obliterate the charming dandiness that initially propelled him to stardom in romantic comedies. Here, he’s far more interesting as a desperate, self-centered, possibly sociopathic antagonist."
    • The Undoing is the latest series from David E. Kelley's "amazing transformation": "Since freeing himself of network obsessions with Nielsen points, demos, and censors (yeah, they still exist, although your parents would probably find that hard to believe), he's turned out a string of intelligent and exciting suspense series unequaled by any another producer I can think of in the history of the medium," says Glenn Garvin. "Mr. Mercedes (AT&T's now defunct Audience Network), Big Little Lies (HBO) and now The Undoing (debuting on HBO this weekend) have all been exquisitely written and acted, melding doubt, tension, wit and occasional outright terror into simmering pots of dread. Kelley's latest, The Undoing (based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2014 novel You Should Have Known), is a murder story so full of plot twists and turns, so many characters shedding snakish skins, that it's nearly impossible to write about with scattering spoilers around like confetti. Yet in no way does it turn on plot gimmickry. It's about trust and relationships, authenticity and appearances, verisimilitude and veneers."
    • The Undoing has the potential to be more substantive than it is, and it’s a little disappointing that it isn’t: "The trajectory of The Undoing is all forward motion, driven by the whodunnit element, without much deep diving below the surface," says Jen Chaney. "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 Undoing would be better off avoiding race and class entirely: "The Undoing comes so close to commenting on privilege and injustice with something like awareness, but all too quickly devolves into the very stereotypes it purports to understand," says Caroline Framke. "After watching five of the series’ six episodes, I even found myself thinking that The Undoing might actually be more successful if it had eschewed addressing race and class entirely. Sure, it would be another kind of ridiculous to have a show entirely about the rich eating their own. But as something like Succession has shown, it’s more than possible to do so while making plain just how wildly privileged the characters are while avoiding tired clichés of the disenfranchised. In fact, there are moments when The Undoing does exactly that to very smart effect."
    • The Undoing feels like a throwback with its pre-pandemic setting and weekly release schedule: "Even though it is set in (almost) contemporary Manhattan — specifically, the ultraluxe Upper East Side of brownstones, private schools, and benefit dinners — it has been consciously shaped as ever-so-slightly retro, one-episode-at-a-time television, a psychological thriller scheduled to give viewers a month or so to feel anxiety about something other than the election results. (Which, of course, may or may not be established by the time the series ends on November 29. We’ll see.)," says Mark Harris. "There’s almost a nostalgic pleasure in that, and The Undoing is a throwback in another way as well: Shot entirely in and around Manhattan and Long Island over six months in 2019, it may be New York City’s last big television production of the pre-COVID days. Think of it as a time capsule of that era’s innocent obsessions. The drama — which focuses on a woman who happens to look like Kidman and be married to a doctor who looks like Hugh Grant and who lives in a lovely, light-filled townhouse and is completely oblivious to the fact that her world is about to be upended — unfolds in a metropolis of teeming sidewalks and crowded charity auctions, of long unmasked strolls, complaints about having too many social engagements, kisses in elevators, and other, more intimate encounters. Improbably, the miniseries now plays like a love letter from an Australian actress, a British actor (this is Grant’s first American TV work), and a Danish director, Susanne Bier, to money-flaunting, class-anxious, pre-lockdown New York."
    • Hugh Grant says The Undoing's cliffhangers are "beyond genius": “The way I can really judge is that, when I was reading the scripts, did I want to quickly pick up the next one?" he says. "And the answer was always ‘Yes.’ And that’s very rare.” It is Grant’s character who leaves the audience — and his on-screen wife — wondering if he can be trusted at his word about his role in the events."
    • Nicole Kidman and director Susanne Bier insist The Undoing isn't an East Coast Big Little Lies: The two shows have different visual styles, says Kidman. Bier, who watched both seasons of Big Little Lies, adds that "I liked it a lot, but it’s definitely very different. I think one of the reason why it gets compared a lot to (Big Little Lies) is that David E. Kelley writes (female characters) really well.”
    • Kidman says The Undoing is meant to be a love letter to New York City
    • Susanne Bier on directing Nicole Kidman: "You know, when she’s an actress, she’s like totally an actress. I mean, she can access any emotion with a blink of an eye and she does this totally uncompromising and uncannily sort of insanely, I mean, she can do anything. And she does that. Like when she’s on set, she’s an actress and she just goes all the way, and completely uncompromising. And then, as an executive producer, she’s your friend. I mean, she’s sort of the artistic endeavors friend. And so, you can call her up at night and you can discuss things and she will do whatever she can and she will be totally supportive. And she’s really savvy. She came to Hollywood when she was very young and she understands every single detail about the system. And so she’s like a very important ally and friend in that context."

    TOPICS: The Undoing, HBO, Big Little Lies, David E. Kelley, Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman, Susanne Bier, Coronavirus