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HBO’s ‘The Undoing’ offers mystery, escapism in pilot

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Murder, wealth, competitive private school parents and seductive strangers run amiss in David E. Kelley’s creations, and his latest limited series, “The Undoing,” is no exception. 

Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, “The Undoing” feels highly reminiscent of Kelley’s earlier HBO drama series, “Big Little Lies,” which was adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name. In fact, both shows were based upon novels. 

In the case of “The Undoing, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 psychological thriller “You Should Have Known” serves as the source material. Additionally, both shows grapple with similar themes of class and privilege, all the while focusing on a murder mystery. 

Having premiered on Oct. 25, “The Undoing” follows New York City therapist Grace Fraser (Kidman), whose seemingly idyllic life with her pediatric oncologist husband (Grant) unravels when tragedy strikes their son’s private school community. 

Their son Henry (Noah Jupe) attends the elite Reardon School, where Grace meets the enigmatic Elena (Matilda De Angelis), whose son attends the school on an implied scholarship. As highlighted in the pilot episode, Grace spends her days helping couples repair their relationships by learning more about each other. In a cruelly ironic twist, however, Grace realizes that she herself may not truly know the person closest to her —  her husband, Jonathan — despite her penchant for helping her patients discover just that. 

After a series of bizarre encounters between Elena and Grace, Elena’s dead body is found, and the police rule the case a homicide. Jonathan becomes a potential suspect in Elena’s murder, causing Grace to question her skills as a therapist and ability to read people. At the conclusion of the pilot, Grace attempts to reach Jonathan, who is supposedly out of town at an oncology conference. Several calls later, she discovers that he left his cell phone in their apartment, making him unreachable, wherever he may be. 

Grant once again reprises his common role as the witty English husband to his American counterpart. Despite providing several moments of comic relief, his character also serves as a looming dubious presence in a world filled with unethical, overzealous parents who stop at nothing — perhaps even resorting to murder — to ensure their children’s success.

Although the pilot includes several captivating characters, both main and supporting ones alike, Kidman’s performance ultimately takes center stage. The foreshadowing of her character’s emotional instability, while not subtle, still manages to capture the audience’s attention, making viewers feel invested in her unknown but clearly serious plight.

Thus far, “The Undoing” offers some much-needed escapism, inviting viewers to experience a classic whodunit with a side of glamorous fashion, a glittering setting and soapy plotlines. If only for a moment, the series distracts us from the grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing us to immerse ourselves in 45 minutes of secretive relationships, cryptic backstories and luxurious wardrobes.

Although “The Undoing” bears countless similarities to “Big Little Lies” in terms of style, theme and even actresses (Kidman), it nonetheless offers an intriguing pilot episode — and hopefully five other compelling ones to follow. 

Contact Alexandra Chang at abc2022 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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