In ‘The Undoing,’ Secrets, Murder And Zzzzs

by Aisha Harris

Grace (Nicole Kidman) and Jonathan (Hugh Grant) come undone in The Undoing.
Niko Tavernese /HBO

The most gripping moment in the HBO miniseries The Undoing involves the most natural of things. It happens in the first episode, between a bunch of wealthy Manhattan moms planning a fundraising event for their hoity-toity private school, and Elena (Matilda De Angelis), the noticeably younger and conventionally hot new mom whose fourth-grade son got in on a scholarship.

As the women prattle on about the sorts of things 1-percenters prattle on about at their meeting, Elena is quiet but eerie, casting intense glares at the others while trying to calm her restless infant daughter. She casually lifts up her top, pulls down her bra and begins breastfeeding; the editing cuts between the disapproving glances of the other women at the table, underscored by the soft rumbling of an ominous orchestral score. And then: A close-up of the baby latched onto Elena dissolves into an even closer shot of that same image, followed by an overhead shot of the women sitting silently at the table, all looking in Elena’s direction.

It’s a deliciously crafted scene, overtly positioning Elena as the outsider to this gilded cohort and edging into the realm of parody, perhaps unintentionally. Is it an homage to ’70s thrillers like The Stepford Wives, which found ways to draw out horror and paranoia from socioeconomic anxieties? I’m not sure, but I do know the rest of David E. Kelley’s latest sudsy drama about the bougiest of the bougie doesn’t come close to being this exciting again. (Five of six episodes were made available to critics in advance; all episodes were directed by Susanne Bier.)

In The Undoing Kelley reunites with Nicole Kidman, along with many of the same themes they explored together in Big Little Lies. (Lies big and little abound here, too, albeit among elites of a different coast.) As Grace Fraser, one of those wealthy Manhattan moms, Kidman plays yet another woman trying to keep it together while falling apart under the weight of family secrets. She’s a respected therapist who excels at helping her clients recognize their self-destructive habits and untangle their messy personal lives, but – surprise! – everything at home is not as it seems.

Without spoiling: The Undoing contains lust, murder, a missing person and cheeky, extremely self-aware lines like “I thought that was the whole essence of modern parenting, isn’t it? Keeping them protected from reality for as long as possible so that when they finally emerge they can’t cope and end up self-harming.” A handsomely craggy Hugh Grant co-stars as Jonathan, Grace’s husband and a children’s oncologist; Noah Jupe plays Henry, their young son. I have not read the novel from which the show is adapted – You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz – but anyone who’s digested enough Lifetime movies and glossy melodramas chronicling the disintegration of idyllic upper-class families is likely to figure out where most of the various twists are heading, a few steps ahead.

This isn’t an inherently bad thing; part of the pleasure of watching erotic mystery thrillers such as this is the adherence to a formula and familiar beats like furtive glances and dramatic courtroom revelations. But even with this cast (Donald Sutherland and Édgar Ramírez also star) and this subject matter, The Undoing somehow manages to be a slog, neither titillating nor particularly suspenseful. Whereas Big Little Lies Season 1 struck the right balance between self-awareness and intrigue, with A-list actresses chewing scenery in the most delectable of ways, the meta cracks about the Frasers’ insular bubble feel forced, and Kidman, Grant and the rest of the adult cast are unable to make the material crackle. 

And there are undercooked efforts to provide some level of commentary, but they barely scratch the surface; they wind up seeming like lip service or totally missed opportunities. The camera will occasionally linger on the mostly black and brown extras in the background of the prison scenes, perhaps to serve as some kind of acknowledgment of the prison industrial complex? It’s a choice indicating a fear of truly addressing the fact of the gigantic wealth and racial gap that hangs so prominently over this family’s circumstances.

It can be perhaps unfair to critique a work based on what it’s not – the creators made a choice to focus on what they wanted to focus on. But I couldn’t help but want more of Elena and her family’s perspectives in opposition to the Frasers, for a more insightful study of class and privilege that the show teases but doesn’t deliver upon. Instead, she is a frustratingly enigmatic pawn in the plot’s boilerplate execution, and The Undoing unfolds sleepily on all fronts: as suspense, as excess and as an engrossing character study.

‘American Utopia’: David Byrne’s Coming To My House, Via HBO

by Glen Weldon, Chris Klimek, and Soraya Nadia McDonald

David Byrne and Spike Lee. Two artists with very defined, very distinct, and yet very different, sensibilities — but when you put them together, it works. The theatrical concert film David Byrne’s American Utopia, now streaming on HBO Max, is a career-spanning celebration of Byrne’s music, both with Talking Heads and his solo work. Director Spike Lee shoots the stage of Broadway’s Hudson Theater from a host of angles to capture the exuberant, rollicking — yet rigorously choreographed energy — of Byrne and his fellow barefoot, silver-gray-suited performers.

The audio was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy.

‘Lovecraft Country’ Tours The Horrors Of America

by Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon, Audie Cornish, and Ronald Young Jr.

The best horror is the horror that feels true. That’s one of the reasons the new HBO series Lovecraft Country works. The show is created by Misha Green, who also created the series Underground, and adapted from a novel by Matt Ruff. Set in the 1950s, it follows a young Black man (Jonathan Majors) who sets off with his childhood friend (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle (Courtney B. Vance) to search for his missing father. A series of connected stories follows these characters around and through the very real dangers of being Black in America, and not just in the Jim Crow South. But it also throws in some beasts and ghosts and bloody battles because after all, it’s still horror.

‘Insecure’ Co-Star Yvonne Orji Says Molly Is A ‘Beautiful Mess’

When Insecure debuted on HBO in 2016 Issa Rae and her best friend Molly were on the brink of 30. They navigated broken hearts, gentrification in Los Angeles, and workplace discrimination. Now, at the outset of Season 3, they’re leaving their 20s behind and are still making mistakes — but with a little more confidence.

Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly, says viewers resonate with her character because she is “a beautiful mess.” In fact, if things had gone a little differently for her in college, Orji says, “Molly is who I would have been.”

Interview Highlights

On finding faith when she was in college

My faith has definitely been the guiding force in a lot of my life and a lot of my decisions. … I went to a Bible study like two months into my freshman year and met this woman who referred to God as “Daddy” and I was like, What’s wrong with her? She got daddy issues? Why is she calling God “Daddy”?

And there was something so pure and passionate about her relationship with God that caused that to not be weird for her. And I’m kind of competitive, but I always say … I’m competitive in reverse. [Some] people are competitive for power – I was just like, I want to have a relationship with God like she does, whatever I have to do to get there … that’s what I want.

Orji, left, and Issa Rae star in HBO’s Insecure, which is now in its third season.

Merie W. Wallace/HBO

On abandoning her plan to become a doctor

I had plans: I was like, Yeah, I’m going to be a doctor.Don’t know how. I didn’t like organic chemistry or blood — but it sounds good.

And then God’s like, Hey, what if I told you I had other plans? and I was like, Well, I guess this is one of those tests they talk about in the Bible, so, let’s go! And I’m now currently living a life that I never imagined.

On her view that abstaining from sex can be empowering

Anytime you talk about virginity there’s a lot of backlash for a lot of different reasons, right? … People are like: That’s not empowering to still be a virgin — because, you know, we don’t tell guys to be virgins and so … it’s another way that the church holds women hostage. … I don’t get into that, because, for me, I’m like: Everything in life is a choice. So I always say: if you can look yourself in the mirror and you’re happy with all the decisions that you make — then like, please, continue on.

On the saying she has tattooed on her wrist

[It] translates to: Nigerians don’t finish second place. We don’t finish last. … Being Nigerian, that’s what my parents taught me: You know, just this fearlessness, this resilience … we don’t fail.

On how her Nigerian parents reacted to her decision not to go to medical school

At the end of the day they just want you to succeed. They don’t know that you can [succeed] in something that they are not privy to. A friend of mine who’s spent more time in Nigeria than in America said: You know, it’s not that your parents don’t want you to do this entertainment thing. But you have handicapped their ability to be the best parents. Because if you told them you want to do engineering, they know Mrs. So-and-So’s son is an engineer. They can call her. They can connect you two and he can give you instructions on what to do. He can help you find a job after you’re done school. You have told them you want to be a “jester” — which is what my mom called me when I said I want to do comedy — … who can they go to to say: Can you help my daughter? If you fail it is a direct reflection of their failure. And it just put so many things in perspective for me.

On what she learned from her mom

My mom would say: You must be nice to everybody because you don’t know if you’re entertaining angels without your knowledge. And like, that’s stuck with me. … If you’re good, then good will come back. And I was like, Mom, you taught me that and that seeped into my career. … You did help me. You taught me resilience. … you’ve helped me succeed in my “jestering” business.

On walking the red carpet with her mom

She came to the premiere. … One of the special moments in my life was being able to fly my mom and my brother out here. My mom [got] to like walk the red carpet with me and just kind of see like this dream fulfilled. Because at the end of the day, everything I was doing was for the betterment of my family.

On what her mom thinks of the show, which can get a bit raunchy

I think the first time Molly cursed my mom looked at me and was like, I did not raise you to use such words. … I was like, Mom, I don’t curse in my real life. …

Before any of the intimate scenes happen [in the show] she … went back to Nigeria thankfully but then Insecure started playing in Nigeria and I was like, Aw, this is it! This is the end! But because we’re such a heavily Christian country they edit out a lot of the intimate stuff. … You know, God is good, he’s always looking out.

Sophia Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.