clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Big Little Tries: You’ve Seen ‘The Undoing’ Before, Even If You Haven’t

The central plot devices of the new HBO limited series are murder and the contrast between the polite social norms of the elite and the violence that punctures their bubble. Sound familiar?

HBO/Ringer illustration

HBO’s The Undoing is less exciting for what it is than what it could portend. The new limited series, which debuted Sunday, stars Nicole Kidman as a casually blessed Upper East Sider and was written by David E. Kelley, the television titan who’s transitioned seamlessly from procedurals like Chicago Hope to the more polyglot assortment of Peak TV. The cast of The Undoing ranges from late-career screen legends (Hugh Grant, Donald Sutherland) to respected character actors (Lily Rabe) to exciting up-and-comers (Matilda De Angelis). The director, Susanne Bier (Bird Box, The Night Manager), is a name big enough to add prestige, but not so much as to overwhelm the beautiful people and big performances who serve as the main attraction.

So, yes, The Undoing is an obvious, unabashed echo of Big Little Lies, the blockbuster miniseries featuring Kidman as part of an ensemble cast that took Movie Star TV from budding curiosity to endlessly replicated business model. The parallels only multiply when you dig into the actual plot. Kidman and Grant play Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a wealthy and successful couple whose happy facade, if you can believe it, is not all it seems underneath. Their son attends a tony private school where a new, younger, less-well-off mom named Elena (De Angelis) earns the suspicion of the bitchy clique she disrupts. A pivotal scene in the pilot takes place at a fundraiser for said institution. The central plot devices, naturally, are a murder and the implied contrast between the polite social norms of the rarefied elite and the brutal violence that punctures their bubble.

More strands of Big Little Lies DNA show up in style and structure. Bier isn’t nearly as cut-happy as Jean-Marc Vallée, but she still finds every conceivable angle on Kidman’s quivering eyeball as her character’s life falls apart. And, like BLL, The Undoing is adapted from a novel: Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known, from 2014. Kidman, of course, serves as an executive producer, following the Reese Witherspoon model of leading behind the camera as well as in front. (Another executive producer, Bruna Papandrea, was Witherspoon’s partner in Pacific Standard, her company before Hello Sunshine.)

The Undoing is not HBO’s first attempt to bottle BLL’s lightning and have it strike twice, thrice, and beyond. There have been spiritual sequels, like Sharp Objects, and literal sequels, like the less-glowingly-received Season 2 of BLL from last year. Sharp Objects was a fine Southern Gothic slow burn in itself, but suffered slightly from the expectation that it would deliver BLL levels of fireworks and suds. The actual follow-up to Big Little Lies lacked a new story; it simply stretched the old one until you could drive a Range Rover through the plot holes. (Witherspoon’s Little Fires Everywhere, on Hulu, similarly underwhelmed; Kidman and Kelley are at work on another Liane Moriarty adaptation for the streaming service, costarring Melissa McCarthy.) But that hasn’t stopped HBO from forging ahead with The Undoing in the hopes that the third time’s the charm.

It’s not, though an adjusted version of it easily could be. Jonathan is a pediatric oncologist, a vocation so over-the-top virtuous he simply has to be an asshole deep down; Grace is a therapist, a career she most likely pursued for love instead of money, given the fabulous wealth of her father Franklin (Sutherland). (Franklin’s money may also explain the Frasers’ palatial townhouse on East 63rd Street, a manse the discerning eye can tell is more “Logan Roy/Russian oligarch” rich, not “two prosperous medical professionals” rich.) Their marriage blows up when Jonathan seemingly vanishes the day Elena is found dead of a horrific head trauma in her Harlem artists’ studio, an event that lays bare Jonathan’s infidelity, personal disgrace, and just maybe, murderous intent. From there, The Undoing shifts from social satire to psychological thriller to legal drama as Grace has to confront how unfit her husband truly is, even as she wonders whether he’s as evil as everyone else seems to think.

When Grace retains a high-priced lawyer named Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni) to take on her husband’s case, she asks whether an especially provocative statement is a joke. No, Haley replies. “I’m not funny.” The same holds true for The Undoing, a key tonal distinction from Big Little Lies that fails to pay dividends. The Undoing is dour and self-serious, even when it’s trying to undercut the self-seriousness of the Frasers and their ilk. “It’s what rich, entitled people do when threatened: They conceal the ugly truths to protect themselves,” Haley declares. “And they think they can get away with it because they’re rich.” Fair enough, but not the most artful way for Haley or Kelley to make their point. Later, a TV talking head opining on Jonathan’s trial observes, “As much as we like to think we’d stick it to the rich, in the end we don’t. We never do.” She’s talking about Jonathan, but also a show that claims to reveal the hollow lives of the 1 percent even as it can’t resist lingering on Sutherland’s sky-high ceilings or Kidman’s luxe outerwear—a contradiction Big Little Lies embraced and The Undoing merely embodies.

It’s also slow-paced, even at just six hour-long episodes. By the fifth chapter, the last provided to critics for review, the audience has only marginally more information than it did in the second, both about the central mystery and the characters who take part in it. There are elements of character study, especially in Grant’s performance as a charming saint who’s bought into his own hype. On the heels of A Very English Scandal and Paddington 2, The Undoing continues a stellar run of Grant’s deconstructing his persona as a rom-com icon. The flustered stammer of Grant’s early peak was built on self-deprecation and ignorance of his own charm; his more recent characters are what happen when men are all too aware of their effect on others and let it get to their heads. (Grace, and Kidman’s performance, are what another character diplomatically describes as “stoic,” the better to contrast with Emmy-reel-ready freak-outs.) But The Undoing can’t match Grant’s insight with an equally absorbing story, instead stretching out the action with underwhelming reveals and redundant bits of evidence.

With so much time between new developments, The Undoing leaves ample room to speculate what a more successful version of the show—and the entire post–Big Little Lies genre—could look like. There are glimpses of it in the premiere, where the meeting of a fundraising committee displays a sniping circle to put BLL’s interview scenes to shame, marshaled by a tight-lipped, tasteful-neutral-clad Janel Moloney. Before the murder mystery begins in earnest, we’re allowed the tantalizing possibility that The Undoing will turn out to be Big Little Lies: East Coast Edition, avoiding redundancy by simply changing up the location.

After all, the mores of wealth can be curiously regional. Big Little Lies takes place at an affluent public school that flatters Californians’ liberal self-image, The Undoing at a private school where dynastic wealth treats scholarships like a favor. Big Little Lies soundscape of crashing waves is replaced by The Undoing’s symphony of car horns and sirens, a chaotic world always threatening to encroach on a cloistered oasis. Big Little Lies moms wear Lululemon; The Undoing moms wear plush camel coats. The difference between the two locales may amount to the narcissism of small differences, but small differences are enough to satisfy the cravings of your average voyeur, at least if the package were sufficiently entertaining. For proof of concept, look no further than the ultimate study in microclimates of extreme opulence: Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, introducing us to America’s most out-of-touch socialites one metropole at a time.

The Undoing’s adherence to a template is far from a drawback. In fact, it’s where it deviates from the BLL playbook that the show tends to fare the worst. The issue isn’t that The Undoing tries to channel Big Little Lies, but that it does so unsuccessfully. Even in its failures, however, The Undoing made me dream of a world where TV could crack the code, turning BLL into the scripted version of the Housewives empire. The formula is simple: award-winning actress + scenic surroundings + bitch put-downs = more awards. Zoë Kravitz as an anti-vax influencer on the Westside of L.A.! Laura Dern hosting dinner parties in D.C.! Viola Davis holding court in Chicago! Imagine the possibilities, even when The Undoing can’t.