We like to watch the affluent fall. There’s a particular kind of pleasure derived from indulging in the aspirational lives of beautiful rich people then watching it all topple – never more so than in the latest glossy drama from TV overlord David E. Kelley, creator of shows including LA Law, Ally McBeal and more recently Mr Mercedes and Big Little Lies. It’s the latter of these that The Undoing most closely resembles, not least because it shares a star in Nicole Kidman, who also executive produces. Swap the beachy idyll of Monterey, California for the glamorous bustle of New York City and this is a similarly female-led story of violence, lies and the weight of privilege.
Based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Kidman plays the aptly named Grace, a highly successful therapist about to publish a book, married to perfect husband and father Mike (Hugh Grant), with a son, Henry (Noah Jupe), who attends a super elite school. Grace is the absolute picture of elegance and benevolence but the arrival of young mother Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) into Grace’s school fundraising committee causes a stir, especially when Elena breastfeeds her baby daughter in front of the group.
Elena is gorgeous, sensual, at home with her body, and she seems to take a particular liking to Grace. So when Elena is found brutally murdered in her art studio, and Mike is suddenly missing, Grace’s life is thrown into disarray. This is classic grip-lit stuff – a female led story, with shifting allegiances and a narrator who may not be entirely reliable. It’s maddeningly compelling and structured with frequent cliffhangers so it’s very difficult not to binge the lot in one go – although Sky is dropping the show weekly so unless you want to wait for the whole thing to land you’ll have to get used to a deliciously moreish drip feed.
Kelley continues his strategy of placing top female talent in the directors chair – this time it’s Oscar winner Susanne Bier who also helmed The Night Manager and she brings a pace and edge to the show bolstered by the absolutely terrific cast. Grant is absolutely playing to his strengths here, both incredibly charming but also just a bit off – if you get the slight sense Mike’s not being sincere – he’s probably not. Donald Sutherland as Grace’s wealthy powerful father is electric – arrogant, brutish, the absolute epitome of rich white male privilege, he is open about his status, uses it to his advantage without shame and is all the more forceful for it,
Meanwhile it’s Elena’s far less privileged young son who finds his mother’s body, and her husband who Grace’s lawyer, and best friend (Lily Rabe), tries to put in the frame. Pushed to consider what she would do for her family, Grace is forced to confront her own privilege and haunted by the memory of Elena as her life as she once knew it falls apart. Meanwhile the noose tightens in the form of Edgar Ramirez’s dog-with-a-bone cop who finds nothing at all appealing about Grace and her family’s wealth.
Rabe, who’s probably best known for repeat appearances in various series of American Horror Story is well cast as the none more New York career woman constantly juggling a thousand things, a fast talking acerbic woman who leans into her status but might just be the one person Grace can truly trust, while Ramirez brings enough charisma to his gritty cop to steer him away from becoming too generic.
The Undoing is a glossy addictive mystery and there’s satisfaction in spending time with the elite, especially when they are being toppled from their thrones. If, as a show, it feels a bit similar to other grip lit adaptations with heavy hitter cast lineups (Little Fires Everywhere, Sharp Objects, Defending Jacob, etc) that’s presumably because creators like David E. Kelley know what works – and The Undoing definitely does. It’s a perfect bit of escapism for when the nights draw in.
The Undoing is now airing weekly on HBO and on Sky Atlantic & NOW TV from 26 October