"Big Little Lies: East Coast edition.” That’s surely how David E Kelley, the screenwriting powerhouse behind HBO’s 2017 hit, pitched The Undoing to the network.
The parallels between Kelley’s latest star-powered mini-series and his addictive Monterey melodrama are almost too blatant. Like Big Little Lies, The Undoing is rooted in the sort of ominously-titled domestic thriller (You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz) best torn through on a sun-lounger.
Nicole Kidman, whose indelible turn as a domestic abuse survivor in Big Little Lies won her an Emmy, is back, too. Continuing her reign as the queen of prestige telly (our apologies to Reese Witherspoon), she plays Grace Fraser, an uptown therapist who smooths over the trials and tribulations of the super-rich. When she’s not examining fissures in her clients’ failing marriages, she’s pacing New York’s most salubrious neighbourhoods in a series of incredible coats (her outerwear steals several scenes) or sitting on the PTA committee for her son’s (Noah Jupe) eye-wateringly expensive private school.
It’s a cosseted life, cocooned by wealth — her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is one of the city’s top oncologists; her father (Donald Sutherland) is a former banker, prone to making six-figure endowments without raising an eyebrow. But when young mother Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), is killed after a particularly ostentatious school fund-raiser (another one for the BLL bingo card), things start to unravel.
Grace can no longer shield herself from ugliness — not least when Jonathan goes AWOL just hours after the murder, making himself a prime sus-pect. His British accent and patina of charm have, it seems, allowed him to conceal his inherent dodginess. With a rich white man in the frame for killing a young Latina woman, the case has all the makings of a cause célèbre.
Grant’s range is greater than he’s often given credit for, as anyone who has watched A Very English Scandal, or indeed Paddington 2, can confirm, but here he oscillates between his two most frequent on-screen settings — Richard Curtis hero and sleazeball cad — to unsettling effect. He’s especially convincing when Jonathan tries to weasel his way back into Grace’s affections, despite the murder charge. As his exasperated lawyer (an electrifying Noma Dumezweni) puts it, “how much charm do you think you have?”
He has more to do than Kidman, who has played more nuanced versions of this character before. Grace often feels like a very well-dressed cipher (you’ll want to invest in rich burgundies after watching — for the wardrobe rather than the wine cellar) but the actress is always compelling to watch, even when she’s treading old territory.
This is where the BLL comparisons start to come unstuck. With its cohort of rounded, messy female characters, Kelley’s previous series felt ground-breaking. The Undoing doesn’t always succeed in making you care about its milieu of moneyed New Yorkers, so when Jonathan and Grace eventually take the stand, the stakes don’t seem as high as they should. Perhaps it’s the inevitable consequence of a year that’s thrown economic disparities on both sides of the Atlantic into sharp relief — it’s harder to feel for rich people and their problems. The Undoing nods towards its characters’ manifold privileges, but never quite manages to probe any further than surface level (unlike, say, HBO’s other mega-hit Succession).
As soapy melodrama or a glamorous whodunnit, though, it is unimpeachable. Each episode teeters on a delicious cliffhanger that’ll leave you counting the days until the next one (instalments will air weekly, so gulping the whole thing down in one sitting is off the agenda). The Undoing is as gloriously OTT as Kidman’s flowing pre-Raphaelite hairdo — with locked-down winter nights looming, it’s a compelling distraction.