Review by Sean Boelman
Written by David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager), the new HBO limited series The Undoing has all the makings of the next television sensation. While the story may be a tad uneven at times, the unpredictable twists and turns and phenomenal performances all-around are what will make this a sure-fire hit.
The show follows an upper-class socialite whose life begins to unravel when her husband disappears and a mystery involving one of the other mothers at her son’s illustrious private school. Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book You Should Have Known, the story may not be entirely inventive, but it overcomes a lot of the melodrama that often weighs down the genre.
Admittedly, the first episode does get off to a bit of a rough start, if only because it doesn’t settle on a tone until the final five minutes. For the forty-five that precede it, viewers will wonder whether they are watching is a gritty thriller, a soapy erotic thriller, a gritty mystery, or some combination thereof.
Starting with episode two, it becomes much more obvious what Kelley is going for, and it becomes much easier to get invested in the story as a result. Kelley obviously has a clear understanding on how to craft episode and series arcs, allowing the suspense to build slowly but surely and leaving the audience eager with anticipation as to what is going to happen next.
Bier does an expectedly great job bringing the story to the screen in a way that is consistently exciting and intriguing. It starts out in a way that is very slick and beautiful before turning into something more rough as the protagonist’s life of glamour begins to fall apart in front of our eyes.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the show, though, is its character development. Much of its appeal lies in the fact that the viewer doesn’t know who to trust or who is telling the truth. As such, it becomes hard to form a particularly deep attachment to any one character, and our sympathies are spread amongst many of them.
That said, the undeniable highlight here is the cast. Nicole Kidman gives another breathtaking performance here as the wife and mother whose world is spinning out of control. But it is the supporting ensemble that really steals the show, with Hugh Grant, Donald Sutherland, Noah Jupe, and Lily Rabe all having moments that absolutely demand the spotlight.
The Undoing is a very well-made limited series, offering a compelling watch even when it plays things a bit too safe. This arguably works best as an acting showcase, so it is the performances that will likely stick with viewers.
The Undoing debuts on HBO on October 25 at 9:00 ET/PT with subsequent episodes airing on Sundays at the same time. Five out of six episodes reviewed.