I watched the bulk of The Undoing, David Kelley’s latest high-gloss thriller for the one percent, over the course of one evening, embedded in the sofa, riveted by the cliffhangers, the drama, the interiors, and the story itself. Essentially Big Little Lies, but set in New York City instead of Monterey Bay, The Undoing is a schlocky, high-budget thriller, an anxiety-laden romp, and the perfect vessel for the bulk of 2020's ambient, jittering neuroses.
The plot is thin, full of holes, and brimming with inconsistencies, but that is part of the fun. Grace Fraser (a tremulous Nicole Kidman) is not sure of the truth: Her husband, Johnathan (Hugh Grant) may have murdered his lover Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). The Fraser’s child, Henry, is extremely well-adjusted given the amount of trauma he experiences over the course of the show; perhaps he has something to do with the murder, but really, who’s to say? Much like Big Little Lies, another David Kelley show, The Undoing focuses on the inner lives of the outrageously wealthy, operating under the theory that if gruesome murder happens to rich people, it is somehow more interesting. Figuring out who killed Elena Alves is a journey the viewer undertakes alongside Nicole Kidman, whose confusion, hurt, and betrayal flickers across her immovable face in jarring close-up shots. Her anxiety, which is arguably justified in this scenario, is reflected in shots of her panicked eyeballs and tear-stained face as she, over the course of six hours, figures out for herself whether or not the man she loved is capable of murder.
For anyone watching who is savvy enough to not fall prey to red herrings, false flags, or the power of Kidman at the height of her career, playing yet another rich white woman in crisis, the answer to the show’s central question is, resoundingly, yes. Of course it was Jonathan, played with devilish delight by Hugh Grant, who seems relieved to have aged out of the romantic lead roles that pigeonholed him for much of his career, and is leaning into the fine art of playing a cad. Above all, Jonathan is a liar, who elides the truth solely for his own benefit; as a children’s oncologist, his God complex is not so much a complex as it is his entire personality. The charisma that Grant has in spades is partially because he’s British, but also because he’s still capable of knitting his eyebrows together and looking concerned—a puppy dog that seeks forgiveness for the unspeakable and usually gets what he wants.
Each episode ended on a cliffhanger so brutal that I couldn’t stop myself from binging nearly the entire series in one sitting, even though my stress levels rose with every hour that passed. Watching the show was an exercise in anxiety, sure, but it was a pleasant reprieve from the other, more pressing anxiety that permeates my everyday—escapist in the same way that horror movies are for those who can stomach them. To have a place to put away my own anxieties and let them be replaced by fiction for even a few hours is a real treat this year. Even though The Undoing’s finale was arguably the most implausible hour of television I’ve seen in some time, I was in thrall to all of its bullshit, willing and happy to suspend disbelief so much so that I bought into every “twist” and turn of the finale, which many people found disappointing, but for me, a simpleton, I was pleased as punch.
Unlike Big Little Lies, which ended up with a second season even though there was absolutely no need for it, the closing scene of The Undoing was the cherry atop an overladen sundae simply dripping with melodrama. There’s no real way that this show could get a second season, as it is already a perfectly contained unit— a tight six episodes that led to a relatively ridiculous denouement. To expect anything other than that resolution from this kind of programming is a fool’s errand.
Watching The Undoing was like parachuting into someone else’s own anxiety for a minute and sitting with it, soothed by the fact that all the feelings I was feeling were neither real nor consequential. This sense of escapism is what I crave now when my other visual self-soothing techniques, like Garden Rescue or the yule log, fail to deliver: A way to tame my own anxiety by inhabiting fictional trauma. Critically, the show is bad—prestige trash—but that is exactly what this moment calls for.