Roush Review: HBO’s Glossy ‘Undoing’ Is a TV Page-Turner
David E. Kelley knows a page-turner when he sees one.
In recent years, the prolific writer-producer successfully brought Stephen King‘s Mr. Mercedes and Liane Moriarty‘s Big Little Lies to TV. He attempted to do the same with Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer (which CBS turned down), and next month transforms C.J. Box’s gripping The Highway into Big Sky for ABC. But first, he delivers what feels like the classiest long-form episode ever of Law & Order: SVU in the irresistible limited series The Undoing, an adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known.
Directed by Emmy winner Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) with unwavering emotional intensity, the glossy mystery thriller stars a radiant Nicole Kidman (whose hairstyling alone gets three credits) and debonair Hugh Grant as Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a New York society couple whose gilded life is ripe for rupturing. When the shoes begin to drop, at least they’re well-heeled.
The first sign of unease occurs when Grace, a high-priced therapist, attends a ladies’ tea to plan a fundraiser for her son’s posh private school. Among a gaggle of toxic gossips, including Lily Rabe (American Horror Story), she is startled to find “scholarship mom” Elena (the alluring Matilda De Angelis), an outsider who defiantly breastfeeds her infant in front of the shocked elites. Drawn to Grace for her innate empathy, the brazen Elena confesses her insecurities. But there’s more to it than that. Isn’t there always?
The potboiler plot quickly escalates to murder, scandal, and dark secrets exposed, causing Grace to question her charmed marriage to Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist with a God complex. “I want this to stop,” she pleads by the second episode. You’ll almost surely feel otherwise.
Kelley, whose many credits include L.A. Law, Picket Fences, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal, is in his element as the twists lead to a courtroom reckoning. Douglas Hodge steals his scenes as a grubby public defender who diagnoses Grace’s “PTB” — post-traumatic betrayal — and Noma Dumezweni scores as a slick attorney who understands that “People hire me to create muck.” There’s plenty of that to go around as Grace parries with a cagey detective (Edgar Ramírez) and leans on her imperious father (the grand Donald Sutherland), who, when someone tries to cross his family, snarls, “You have not yet met ugliness.”
Ugliness has never looked more spectacular than in this juicy tale of innocence lost among the rich and beautiful. You may anticipate some, though probably not all, of the twists that are coming, but when I got to the end of the fifth (of six) episodes, all that HBO provided in advance, I was so shocked and riveted that I’m counting the days until I can see how it all ends in that final chapter. Exactly how a great page-turner is supposed to work.
The Undoing, Series Premiere, Sunday, October 25, 9/8c, HBO