One of the most compelling TV shows during lockdown 2020 was The Undoing, penned by master of procedurals David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, Goliath, Big Sky, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal). This gripping, six-episode HBO mini-series contains all of the typical mystery thriller components plus stellar performances by a high-profile cast, including Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and Donald Sutherland.
Adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known, Kelley partners with Director Susanne Bier (Bird Box, The Night Manager) and Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, The Last King of Scotland) to capture picturesque pre-pandemic Manhattan in winter. Through dark, muted tones accented with pops of vibrant color, the show’s high production value vividly enhances the themes and story arcs of wealth, infidelity, manipulation, lust and murder.
This whodunit story set on the East Coast ironically parallels the familiar West Coast narrative of Kelley’s Big Little Lies. Both plots center around privileged private school parents dealing with inner struggles amidst a tragic demise, all while raising children.
Living a very comfortable life with her seemingly perfect family on the Upper East side, elegant Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) is a respected, composed and successful psychotherapist with an array of self-destructive, prominent clients. Despite being a highly trained professional in analyzing human behavior, Grace fails to see the flaws and destructive secrets within her own marriage and family.
Grace watches her ideal life slowly unravel into a nightmare, as the undoing of her life begins at a fundraiser meeting when she first encounters a beautifully eerie yet seductive stranger, Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), the young mother of a scholarship student who intensely glares at the committee of elite mothers while breast feeding her infant daughter. Grace discovers it is this woman, Elena, who has an obsession with her husband and also with Grace herself, before Elena’s lifeless body is found on the floor of her art studio in Harlem.
When Grace’s philandering husband Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) becomes the primary suspect of this gruesome murder, the details of his secrets are meticulously revealed. This outwardly charming, pediatric oncologist is empathetic to his cancer patients; but his roguish capabilities and double-life are soon exposed, as Grace’s utopian existence steadily dissembles and crumbles.
Throughout the ever-twisting plot of the first five episodes of this psychological thriller, we shift our focus on which character may have bludgeoned Elena to death, as many possess the motive to do so. Could it be Grace’s distant father Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland), the very affluent, enigmatic retired New York financier who looks after his daughter’s best interests and isn’t particularly fond of her husband? Or maybe it is Grace’s friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe) who eagerly associates Jonathan’s behavior to be a personality disorder characteristic of a sociopath. Perhaps though, it is even Grace, herself, whose judgement is questioned, as she is tormented by a foggy internal landscape of disbelief and disillusionment.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association will recognize The Undoing as one of the most outstanding TV shows of 2020 at The Golden Globes this weekend. The series generated four nominations, including Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television, Nicole Kidman for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television, Hugh Grant for Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television, and Donald Sutherland for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture – Television. The 78th Golden Globes airs this Sunday, February 28th at 7pm ET/4pm PT on NBC.