Why I struggled to stay awake through The Undoing

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant make for an unbelievable couple in this new TV thriller without thrills.

 

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David E Kelley’s new thriller, The Undoing (from Monday 26 October, 9pm), has been billed as Big Little Lies goes to New York. But such a description hardly does it justice. Did that series come with “passive aggressive” breasts? With a female pudendum that appears out of nowhere and stares Nicole Kidman right in the eye? Did it star Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland? No, no, and no. Throw in the interiors (here a Manhattan brownstone, there a Hamptons beach house) and add Nicole Kidman’s wardrobe (never before has one humble shrink owned so many outlandish winter coats), and what you’ve got is a gripping bit of lifestyle porn that should see us into December.

Except that it won’t. No matter how much you crave kitchen islands, beige cashmere and Central Park in the snow – don’t be embarrassed, I’m not averse to such things myself – I’d be willing to bet you won’t want to keep watching The Undoing beyond episode two; Hugh Grant having temporarily disappeared, I struggled to stay awake even through that. And while I’d like to say it was worth it (staying awake, I mean) to see Nicole Kidman’s reaction shots, I realise now that you can only laugh so many times at someone who, on receiving the worst possible news (your husband might have committed a murder!), simply stares into the middle distance like some poor coeliac vaguely wondering if it might be possible to get a gluten-free bagel.

Kidman’s expressions, whether sad or happy, calm or terrified, are now so weirdly similar I sometimes struggle to understand the inference of her lines. “I’m having a hard time functioning,” her character, Grace Fraser, told her plutocrat father (Sutherland) as the scale of the crisis she was facing became apparent. But since, at this moment, she looked exactly the same as when the pudendum pounced, when she was making a peanut butter sandwich, when she was having sex and when she was advising a distressed patient, I wondered for a moment if this was merely sarcasm. If she’d broken into a robot voice and shouted, “This does not compute, this does not compute!” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

[see also: The blood and guts of BBC One’s Roadkill]

But back to the plot. What we know so far is that her oncologist husband, Jonathan (Grant), far from being charming, amusing and terribly, terribly kind to dying children, is in fact a bit of a bounder. He was having an affair with a woman called Elena (Matilda de Angelis), whose son was his patient, and as a result lost his job (he didn’t tell Grace about this). Elena was also – until she was found dead – the owner of both the passive aggressive breasts, whipped out to feed her baby at a school fundraising committee meeting, and of the eye-level pudendum, flashed post-Pilates at the gym while Grace blinked away furiously. (I momentarily wondered if Elena’s wax job was not up to snuff, this being Manhattan, but then I remembered Grace is a therapist: vulvas are fascinating, but Brazilians are not.) Jonathan’s story is that Elena became obsessed with his life, and his wife, but that, although he confronted her about this, he did not kill her.

Does Grace believe him? Hmm. On the one hand, she’s a therapist. You can just imagine her saying to her friend Sylvia: “This is about self-kindness for me. I have to cut him out.” Plus, there’s definitely something Oedipal going on with her dad. But then again, in the stick insect Upper East Side circles in which Grace moves, Jonathan’s very English friskiness and naughty social insubordination are hotter than Hades. (“Would you like to be washed?” he asked saucily, joining Grace in the shower shortly before he went on the run – a line that I strongly suspect Grant, the single good thing in this show, of having written himself.)

Surely she won’t give him up without a fight. Not that I particularly care either way. It’s not only that from here on in – I’ve peeked – The Undoing turns into a boring courtroom drama (so long, kitchen islands). It’s that I simply don’t believe in Grace and Jonathan as a couple, whether they’re rolling around in their 400 thread count sheets, or sitting opposite each other on little plastic chairs in the visiting room of a state penitentiary. 

The Undoing 
Sky Atlantic

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos

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