Nicole Kidman’s Refined Tension Outdoes the Plot of HBO’s ‘The Undoing’

The rich are at it again in HBO’s new six-part limited series “The Undoing.” You know what that means. They cheat, gossip and eventually become entangled in murder. Several notable talents come together to deliver this latest stab at the upper classes and their wicked ways. David E. Kelley is the creator and writer while directing duties go to the much acclaimed Susanne Bier. Our power couple under suspicion is two great thespians: Nicole Kidman  and Hugh Grant. Everything should be in order for a barbarously fun time. Yet this one’s a curiously one-note affair with nonetheless impeccable performances.

Naturally the setting is New York City’s Upper East Side, where wealthy psychiatrist Grace Fraser (Kidman) spends her days listening to the problems of the privileged. She seems to live a picture-perfect life with cancer doctor husband Jonathan (Grant) and their son, Henry (Noah Jupe). While attending a meeting of fellow elite moms who run fundraisers connected to their kids’ school, Grace meets Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), a young and very attractive working class mom eager to fit in. While the other women feign friendliness Grace tries to genuinely make Elena feel welcome. But Elena also seems to have a strange fixation on Grace. A shocker drops when Elena is found dead with her head bludgeoned. At the same time Jonathan suddenly disappears and is nowhere to be found. When Jonathan does turn up it also turns Grace’s whole world upside down. What was once safe and familiar now feels like a nest of lies. It gets worse when Jonathan becomes the cops’ prime suspect in Elena’s murder.

The most enjoyable aspect of “The Undoing” is its performances. With talent like this even the more mundane scenes have an extra layer of tension. As a thriller it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Kelley is a sharp writer best known for several hit shows but most recently delivered a big hit with “Big Little Lies.” This is a return to familiar territory, and once again with Kidman at the forefront, where America’s greedy get trapped in their own devices. Curiously though, it’s quite subdued. It lacks liveliness and color in its plot and characters. Kidman is naturally elegant and by now she could play this sort of role in her sleep. She’s focused and subtle, with that familiar stare when her character is processing a revelation or twist by simply looking at a suspect. Kidman has played so many wealthy wives with drama going on that real-life rich spouses probably model themselves on her. Her best moments in “The Undoing” are actually in the first two and a half episodes. These are the chapters where Jonathan is missing and Grace’s orderly world is destroyed by shock and doubt. There’s something refreshingly entertaining about watching the dominant class grapple with crises out of their control, particularly in a year when all our lives have been rattled by pandemics and politics. Grace calls and calls Jonathan, only to discover his phone is still at home. Why does he have so many hotel options open? Why hasn’t anyone seen him at work? We’ve been here before, but it’s always fun to jump back in. It feels like it’s going to get even juicier when Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramírez) arrives to investigate Elena’s killing and thereby investigate the Frasers. An episode closes with a fantastic cliffhanger involving security camera footage that will have viewers desperate for the next chapter.

Alas, when those next chapters get going it becomes obvious Kelley and Bier had no idea how to make this material really go over the cliff as it should. Bier is the director of intimate and meditative dramas like “After the Wedding” and “In a Better World.” They tend to be about family bonds, including her most commercial effort: Netflix’s 2018 sleeper hit “Bird Box.” Yet she’s never been much of a satirist or vicious social critic. So “The Undoing” begins to drag as a mundane study of wealthy people who stop trusting each other. Half the story is spent with Jonathan begging Grace for forgiveness (Grant delivers his most teary-eyed performance ever) and insisting Henry visit him in jail so he can explain everything. It turns out inevitably that Jonathan was having an affair, the details of which are left frustratingly murky or as never more than a bored doctor meeting a hot young wife. It turned out to be the wife of Fernando (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the father of one of Jonathan’s patients, Miguel (Edan Alexander). Fernando is relegated to a thankless background role as the stereotypical, angry macho Latin husband. He just gets pulled out to appear in court and yell at Jonathan even though there are some very serious revelations involving the doctor and another baby at Fernando’s apartment. The narrative is caught in a spinning wheel of mundane repetition, with little progress being made all the way until the final episode. Noma Dumezweni is another great actor thrown into the mix as Jonathan’s lawyer Haley. Yet Kelley and Bier can’t find anything for her to do other than to be a typical TV lawyer. But because there’s not much to the mysteries of the plot (aside from the central question of who killed Elena), Haley spends most of her scenes giving Jonathan the kind of TV legal advice we get every season somewhere else. 

If Bier and Kelley don’t want to make a fiery melodrama or a satire about the American class system, then the question becomes precisely what is the aim here? The first episode has Brian De Palma-style tension in effective and unnerving scenes, as when Elena approaches Grace in a women’s locker room, her naked body staring down at her in superiority, expressing gratitude but with a hint of obsession. For whatever reason, Kelley and Bier dump this rhythm and instead opt for a stilted domestic drama with a murder in the background. Even Donald Sutherland drops in to play Grace’s ultra-wealthy dad Franklin, who gives useless advice and then threatens Jonathan with death if he flees after Franklin agrees to pay his bail. But what’s the point? We all know the rich are just as prone to bad marriages and criminal acts as any other social class. “The Undoing” lacks the more precise and striking imagination of another HBO series, “Succession,” where every character is sharply drawn to say something about power and class truly operate. It’s also much more fun even as it tells its story with a dark and piercing maturity.

Some shows can be enjoyed purely on the level of their acting talent. “The Undoing” is one such series. The dialogue still has Kelley’s tight cadence and Bier frames it all nicely, even while using the same kind of digital cinematography more common in 2000s indie productions. But Kidman and Grant are the real stars here. Kidman in particular brings her usual gift for crafting characters that seem to be hiding much more than they let on. If only the case itself was just as fascinating.

The Undoing” premieres Oct. 25 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.