It might hit all the same beats as Big Little Lies, but The Undoing is still an engaging murder-mystery as well as being a skewering of elitist posturing. So far, anyway.
This recap of The Undoing season premiere contains spoilers.
Television criticism is weird. If The Undoing wasn’t the work of David E. Kelley, I’d accuse it of being a thoughtless knock-off of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Since it is the work of Kelley, it becomes another notch on his storied rich-people-problems TV-writing bedpost, even though it hits every single expected beat of its mega-popular predecessor. Here’s Nicole Kidman. There’s a murder. And it’s all set against the backdrop of New York City’s moneyed upper-crust; it’s a different setting from Monterey, California, but it doesn’t really feel like one.
Kidman, aging like wine, plays Grace Fraser, a well-to-do therapist with a pediatric oncologist husband in Jonathan (Hugh Grant, basically playing himself at this point) who everybody likes because of his tireless devotion to saving the lives – or trying to – of sick children. But his workaholic above-it-all nature leads to The Undoing season premiere’s big twist: He was supposedly at a medical conference in Cleveland right around the time that Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) was killed, torpedoing any potential alibi since Grace can’t find him at any of the hotels there.
Yikes. Anyway, about Elena: She’s weird. Or, sorry, she was weird. At one point she struts around stark naked while talking with unnerving and childlike familiarity with Grace, who apparently doesn’t know her at all. At another, she attends a school fundraiser – more on this in a moment – with enough cleavage on show to attract every male in attendance but eyes only for Grace. Hmm. She’s technically among the bougie crowd of mothers whose children attend the prestigious Reardon School – Grace and Jonathan have Noah Jupe as their son, Henry – but she’s ostracized thanks in part to snobby elitism but also to her odd behavior, which includes that awkward moment at the gym detailed above as well as being caught by Grace crying in the fundraiser bathroom and subsequently kissing Grace on the lips in the building’s elevator.
To what extent Grace knew Elena – or, I suppose, to what extent Elena thought she knew Grace – is one of the big dramatic questions lingering over the season, since there’s no way Grace can really be a happily-married and successful woman who everyone likes without some skeletons in the walk-in closet, right? But The Undoing season premiere – which is, annoyingly, simply titled “The Undoing” – spends most of its time establishing certain key figures and dropping hints as to how the dynamics might play out going forwards. If you’re playing Big Star Bingo you’ll have spotted the esteemed Donald Sutherland as Franklin, Grace’s father, who pays for Henry’s attendance at Reardon and seems to have a frosty relationship with Jonathan. Grace’s closest confidante, Sylvia (Lily Rabe), has her own ideas about who killed Elena – namely, her husband, as yet unseen – but doesn’t realize that her confidant “It’s always the f*cking husband!” response upon learning of Elena’s death actually means more to Grace than anyone else, especially when she finds Jonathan’s cellphone in the back of a drawer.
There’s plenty of mystery to be chewing over, then. But the real secret of The Undoing is just how capably it evokes and then subsequently mocks the lavish upscale high-society setting, such as a moment during the school fundraiser when someone insists that the donations will be put towards “ensuring Reardon is always synonymous with diversity”, and director Susanne Bier pans across a room of almost entirely white faces. Stories about very rich people have to have that sense of ironic awareness to be palatable to a mainstream audience, and The Undoing, at least thus far, seems to have it in spades. It also has just the right amount of crowd-pleasing mystery and melodrama to be a very worthy follow-up to Big Little Lies – it might be trying on a hand-me-down dress, but it fits very nicely indeed.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.