‘The Undoing’ surprises at first but wanders into mediocrity

Photo from the HBO T.V. series "The Undoing"
HBO/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

David E. Kelley has a knack for building tension in the margins. Whenever a plotline on his smash hit “Big Little Lies” became stagnant, it would turn just in time with a delicious, yet measured, twist that added suspense moving forward and enriched the scenes that came before it. 

It’s disappointing, then, to observe how his latest endeavor, “The Undoing,” begins. Though promising at first, the show itself quickly becomes undone, falling flat in its attempts to match the poise of Kelley’s better projects and ultimately revealing itself to be a stale pantomime of its predecessors.

The first three episodes of “The Undoing” that have aired since the show’s premiere Oct. 25 follow the story of therapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant). Their picturesque New York life begins to unravel after the disturbing murder of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), the mother of one of their son’s classmates. 

Through her clients, Grace explores the psychology of adultery, describing the thrill that comes from stepping out on one’s spouse. Meanwhile, her personal life is disrupted by the arrival of Elena, a new member of the PTA whose electrifying presence introduces some much-needed vibrance into Grace’s satisfying but dull world. 

The scenes shared by Kidman and De Angelis are unpredictable and riveting; their surprising dynamic sets the screen ablaze whenever they’re together. Despite her inexperience relative to the show’s leads, De Angelis more than matches Kidman’s star power, bringing the lion’s share of energy to the scenes. The smoldering tension between them is one of the show’s few truly unique elements.

“The Undoing” falls apart, though, when Elena is murdered halfway through the first episode. In a flash, the intrigue generated by Grace and Elena’s seemingly budding relationship is over. All that remains in the wake of Elena’s death is Grace, who slowly comes to understand that her husband is not who she thought he was: He’s been having an affair with Elena for months — in fact, they have a child together — and he is now the primary suspect in the investigation of her murder. 

Grant serves up a middling performance prior to these revelations, but once Jonathan is unmasked as a potential sociopath, his genial, bumbling dad schtick takes on a more sinister layer that showcases the nuances of Grant’s acting abilities. Still, what we gain here in Grant’s performance is not enough to make up for what we lose in De Angelis’ disappearance. 

Despite a scintillating first episode, it’s within these plot developments that the pitfalls begin to shine through. The coterie of PTA members that surround Grace is composed of several phenomenal actresses (Annaleigh Ashford, Janel Moloney, Lily Rabe), but their talents are underutilized and their characters underdeveloped. Their presence often serves as a narration of Grace’s rapidly deteriorating life moreso than a substantive contribution to the fabric of the story.

“The Undoing” is not without its redeeming qualities, however. Ben Lester’s editing and Susanne Bier’s direction often bring fascinating flavors to the rote screenplays, providing them with Lynchian suspense that places the audience in limbo between Grace’s imagination and her perception of reality. Likewise, the show’s lighting and costume design boost its aesthetic value, making it visually compelling despite its dramatic failures.

Ultimately, the show’s greatest flaw is that it’s boring. In an age when television viewers are overwhelmed with options, a prestige drama can’t sustain itself on star power or auteur showrunners alone. “Big Little Lies” resonated because it had something more than its stars or its writer; it had a constellation of distinctive characters who provided seemingly limitless combinations of interactions, making almost every scene uniquely memorable.

“The Undoing” has many of these same ingredients, but the result is far more mundane. To be sure, Kelley’s unpredictability leaves open the possibility for a late-season surprise that recontextualizes the episodes we’ve seen so far. But if the season’s first half is any indication, “The Undoing” is destined to join countless other shows in the dustbin of flashy but forgettable HBO dramas. 

Matthew DuMont covers television. Contact him at [email protected].