When a television series boasts two of the most successful actors of a generation in the lead roles, it almost sounds daft to say its weakest attribute is casting. Yet that is very much the case with The Undoing, the latest prestige drama from HBO, which arrives on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV next week.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a wealthy couple living in a luxurious New York City apartment with their teenage son, who seemingly have the perfect life. At home, the atmosphere is warm and friendly, complete with playful banter in the kitchen during the morning rush. Professionally, Jonathan evokes admiration from everyone he meets for his heroic work treating child cancer patients, while Grace has established a successful career as a therapist (with some of the highest rates in town).
But as the title suggests, this dreamlike existence is about to crumble all around them, when Jonathan is suspected of brutally murdering one of the mothers from his son’s exclusive private school. From that moment onwards, The Undoing explores the devastating effect that a very public police investigation has on the family life of the Frasers, as well as gradually revealing what exactly happened on the fateful night of the crime.
It’s not hard to see why HBO chose to cast such big names in this limited series, which is based on a novel by author Jean Hanff Korelitz. As one of the most respected names in scripted programming, the broadcaster has no shortage of A-listers in its phonebook, while Kidman and screenwriter David E Kelley delivered a major win with their previous adaptation: Big Little Lies. Yet here the casting feels less natural, as if more concerned with finding the most famous available pairing than determining suitability for the roles.
Hugh Grant reaches maximum levels of Hugh Grant-ness in the opening episode, providing an ever-flowing stream of sarcastic remarks as well as that charming arrogance he’s been utilising since the ’90s. The problem being that his usual persona comes through so loud and clear, that any essence of Jonathan Fraser is more or less drowned out. The Undoing has an opportunity to flip Grant’s public image on its head when shocking accusations are levelled at his character, but even then he never quite disappears into the role.
For Kidman, it’s a similar story. While she gives a perfectly serviceable performance as Grace Fraser, it’s hard to shake the feeling that an outside-the-box casting choice could have given this series some extra kick. There’s rarely any moments where she appears to be challenging herself or venturing into unexplored territory; if anything, you might get deja vu at having seen her play such similar characters in the past.
Of course, this is by no means a dealbreaker and The Undoing remains a very competently made slice of crime drama, albeit one that plays it a little too safe. Fans of the genre will know exactly what to expect here, as the series administers familiar plot devices such as the incomplete flashback and the last-minute twist to unravel the central murder mystery. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a tried and tested method of hooking viewers that functions with workmanlike efficiency.
There’s an element of family drama at play as Grace reassesses the man she thought she knew, while young Henry (Noah Jupe) is shellshocked by the thought of his father being a killer. It’s a dynamic that’s certainly intriguing but never quite resonates on an emotional level, due largely to the aforementioned casting problems. That said, the legendary Donald Sutherland picks up some slack later in the series, impressing in a heartbreaking scene between Grace and her father, Franklin.
It’s hard to criticise The Undoing too harshly. While there is a slight lack of ambition behind its casting and execution, the series remains a highly entertaining watch with a compelling mystery that viewers will be compelled to see through to the end. It may not be remembered for decades to come among the best of Kidman or Grant’s considerable body of work, but it will provide six hours of solid television in your pandemic life. Right now, that’s nothing to sniff at.
The Undoing premieres on Sky Atlantic on Monday 26th October. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.