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The Undoing: Nicole Kidman back on HBO in gripping new psychological thriller

Review: The Big Little Lies team serves up a new adaptation of a murderous book with a limited miniseries full of star power.

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Nicole Kidman in The Undoing.

HBO

I miss Big Little Lies, even though Meryl Streep joining Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman's show about desperate Monterey housewives couldn't make season 2 as strong or addictive as the first. I'm still crossing my fingers season 3 will turn out to be more than just rumors

I approached The Undoing, the new HBO limited series starring Kidman, hoping for a Big Little Lies fix, and David E. Kelley's psychological thriller didn't let me down. Kelley was also in charge of the BLL adaptation. Kidman repeats her role as executive producer here. There's a murder to untangle. And like BLL, The Undoing is based on a novel, in this case, Jean Hanff Korelitz's You Should Have Known.

In the six-episode show, which premiered Sunday, Kidman trades the coastal ruggedness of Northern California for New York's exclusive Upper East Side. The Academy Award-winning actress plays Grace Fraser, a successful therapist and quintessential Manhattanite who has a private Pilates instructor and loves to take long meditative walks around the city. She's married to Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a children's oncologist. The couple has a teenage son, Henry (Noah Jupe from A Quiet Place and Honey Boy), and the kind of impeccably decorated house in the city only two doctors could afford.

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Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman in The Undoing.

HBO

Part of what drew me to this story, other than the murderous ingredients, was getting to see the characters in a world before COVID-19. They converse with friends and acquaintances without a mask or distance. Going to the gym is a stress-free activity. Commuting to work is still a thing. 

There's also the luxury ingredient. Grace's father (Donald Sutherland) has an apartment on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park. The Frasers get invited to lavish black-tie parties. Kidman has a collection of long colorful coats even Scandal's Olivia Pope would envy. 

The couple's illusion of a perfect life gets shattered when the mother of one of Henry's schoolmates shows up murdered. This is a show where the less you know, the better. Let's just say the plot gets peppered at every turn with thrilling twists: paternity tests, treason, sexy police detectives, cunning lawyers, sociopaths, J. M. W. Turner's paintings and even the hint of a haunted house. 

"You're constantly second-guessing everybody, their behavior and what they're saying," Kidman said during a virtual press conference about the show on Oct. 14. "No one's really saying exactly what they mean. It's meant to be that classic Hitchcockian thriller, where you're not sure what the motives actually are."

Director Susanne Bier plays on the Hitchcockian elements. The Danish filmmaker behind Bird Box and The Night Manager has a purposeful, and personal, way of framing characters and events, without getting in the way. She leaves her distinct stamp throughout the show, whether it's through portraying an entrance to a New York criminal court building from a bird's-eye view that recalls North by Northwest or a certain phone call that seems almost out of Rear Window.

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Director Susanne Bier, Edgar Ramirez and Lily Rabe in the set of The Undoing.

HBO

Kidman is ready for her many closeups in this show. She's perfectly believable as an upper-crust, complex, independent, professional woman struggling with the many emotions and unsavory facts constantly thrown at her. 

"Everything that's happened in 2020 has now sort of put a different lens on the series," the actress and producer said during the press conference. "Seeing these worlds come apart is what's fascinating to people. And the idea of being able to buy your justice and having this privilege they shouldn't have." 

You may not be able to resist the temptation to compare how the Frasers live in the Upper East Side to how another family scrapes by in East Harlem. Or how the Frasers are able to afford the best possible lawyer, the very resourceful Haley Fitzerald (Noma Dumezweni.) But even with the gaping class divide, you can just devour The Undoing as pure escapist TV.

This is another one of those mystery novels turned shows -- such as BLL, Sharp Objects or Little Fires Everywhere -- with the right amount of bleakness and shock and a strong intelligent female lead. It's an adaptation that urges you to keep binging episodes until you find out the killer's identity, a journey that comes with just the right dose of unpredictability.