3 out of 5
Created by: David E. Kelley
Back in what I would’ve called peak David Kelley days – Ally McBeal – when I was sour on TV and anything my parents liked and anything anyone, in general, liked, the creator / writer / producer’s name would’ve caused my nose to a’wrinkle with immediate disdain for anything with which he was involved. I still haven’t actually watched any of those “peak” Kelley shows, mind you, but between then and now my nose-wrinkling precedents have drastically changed, as have my viewing tastes, and seeing Kelley’s named attached to his first streaming platform show – Goliath – caught my eye: streaming had had prestige shows up to that point, of course, but this seemed like a continuing sign of the way TV series now offered the opportunity for a type of auteurism. I liked Goliath, and the series that bear Kelley’s name, quickly following in its wake, suggested a new peak for him. And now, although I can’t say I’ve liked all those series, his name is a draw for me to check something out.
We combine that with HBO and Nicole Kidman, the station / actress also involved with another recent offering – Big Little Lies – which I also quite liked, and we arrive at The Undoing, a murder mystery miniseries based on a novel and scripted wholly by Kelley, directed by Bird Box (and seasoned Danish film director) Susan Bier.
That’s a lotta preamble for an average show.
But it’s an entertaining one, at least. Kept to a smartly succinct 6 episodes and dripping with mood from Bier and effectively gloomy and glossy cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle, the star power of Kidman and Hugh Grant, playing married couple Grace and Jonathan Fraser, navigate us through the whodunnit of a brutal murder: a woman with whom Jonathan had been having an affair, named Elena (Matilda De Angelis). The duo’s performance here is truly key, with Grant flipping magnetically between a convincing, “perfect” husband, and a sudden sociopath, shoveling lies atop lies; Kidman is a constrained struggle, trying to figure out if she can maintain her once picturesque, hoity toity lifestyle amidst the metastasizing media circus her life starts to become. Knowing they can carry it, a lot of the show gives features these two actors, full screen, and not a lot of mystery regarding this murder. We drift, lightly, over themes of class and sensation, but The Undoing is a pretty empty affair – we come to decisions slowly, so that episode’s “twist” can wait until 30-40 minutes in; sprinkle in 20% cop procedural and 20% court procedural, and we’ve got our six episodes.
While my youthful dislike for Kelley was definitely more due to an aversion to whatever was popular versus anything, I did turn away from much of TV at that age because I just couldn’t understand its purpose: an American 22-episode standard made everything into filler. All of it was just too clearly begging to get a viewer happy and comfortable and tuning in next week. Again, age has made me able to appreciate the simple entertainment value of that, but “filler” still isn’t something I necessarily want to see. During Kelley’s 2010s peak, The Undoing seems to circle back around to that style. It’s much more of a movie-of-the-week type material, barely having enough material for even that. Thankfully, its talented crew and very talented actors do make it a worthwhile enough affair, getting us, perhaps, too easily over the finish line of each episode with just enough curiosity to see where this is going, but hopefully Kelley is just burning off some spare ideas, and his next project will be a bit more fleshed out.