“The Undoing” owes debts to earlier high-class HBO miniseries, but the net effect feels like “Big Little Lies Lite.” Reuniting Nicole Kidman and writer-producer David E. Kelley, the six-part production hinges on a murder mystery and trial, but even with its twists and feints, doesn’t possess the requisite qualities to become another viewing obsession.
Like “Big Little Lies,” it’s adapted from a novel, and the entire limited series was directed by Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, which in theory provides a continuity of vision similar to “Lies” director Jean-Marc Vallee. Another obvious comparison would be HBO’s “The Night Of,” also built around a murder, although in a way that proved considerably more compelling.
The “undoing” of the title refers to the privileged, pampered life of Kidman’s Grace Fraser, a therapist married to a pediatric oncologist, Jonathan (Hugh Grant). Their happy life, however, is upended when the mother of one of his patients is found dead, after the woman (Italian actress Matilda de Angelis) – haughtily dismissed as a scholarship case by Grace’s wealthy parent friends from her son’s private school – had awkwardly entered her social circle.
Things begin to unravel quickly thereafter, with the police sniffing around and new revelations emerging about the depth of Jonathan’s betrayal. The question is whether Grace can believe that the man she married and loved could have actually committed such a brutal crime – a Hitchcockian conundrum if there ever was one, but which proves a little weak in its presentation.
The most galvanizing presence, in fact, turns out to be Donald Sutherland as Grace’s wealthy father, who never much liked her spouse and uses his money and influence to help his daughter, without supporting any inclinations she might have about standing by her man.
Setting the auspices aside, the sorority of school moms only makes the comparisons to “Big Little Lies” more unavoidable. Kidman and Grant are perfectly fine as central couple, but both have starred in better, slightly tawdry miniseries about the privileged class recently enough (his being “A Very English Scandal”) to make this effort look pallid by contrast.
Taken strictly on its own terms as the TV equivalent of summer beach reading, “The Undoing” is broadly entertaining, but it’s hard to evaluate such a project in a vacuum given the abundance of similarly themed fare.
Traditionally, everyone loves a good murder mystery. These days, there’s considerably less patience with a just-OK one.
“The Undoing” premieres Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.