Monday, November 30, 2020

Undoing "The Undoing"

Warning: this post contains spoilers, a lot of spoilers. If you want to watch David Kelley’s latest foray into television miniseries, that being “The Undoing” with fresh eyes, wait until you have seen it all to read this post.

Obviously, to me at least, I felt morally obligated to watch a television series whose central character was a high toned, high fashioned therapist on New York’s Upper East Side. I know that world better than most, and I was curious to see how Kelley portrayed it-- following the lead of a novel by the same name.

Generally speaking, the show fails on multiple levels. Among them, and perhaps not the most compelling, is that the characters were presented as caricatures. It may be because Nicole Kidman can’t act. It may be because the story was a feminist morality tale. It may be because the authors, the novelist and the screenwriter can’t write. It may be that they both hold such people in total contempt and lack the talent required to mask their ill feelings.

No matter the reason, the show’s characters were not very interesting. Take the character no one seems to mention, Grace Fraser’s (Nicole Kidman) father, played by Donald Sutherland. We see the old geezer living in a palatial Fifth Avenue apartment. We know that he is mega-wealthy and that he is obviously retired. In his dotage he has become an aesthete-- he plays piano and seems to spend all his afternoons looking at one painting in one gallery-- I assumed that it was the Frick Collection.

And yet, we do not know how he earned his money, what his business was. No, he is merely the doting father of psychologist Grace Fraser, the doting grandfather of the twelve year old Henry Fraser. 

We are also told that when his son-in-law, the accused murderer Jonathan Fraser asked him for a cool half a million dollar loan, he just handed it over, without saying a word to his daughter. It’s an absurd misjudgment on the author’s part-- because people with that kind of money do not throw it around like chump change. And it is highly unlikely that he would not wonder what the money was for. And surely, he would say something to his daughter.

Anyway, the story has a slightly classist tinge. Pediatric oncologist Jonathan Fraser, played fairly well by Hugh Grant-- had an affair with the mother of one of his patients. The doctor performed a medical miracle and saved the woman’s son. The mother was Elena Alves. 

In addition, in order to make the story even more implausible the Alves son attends the toney Reardon school, on a scholarship of course. As a result Elena is invited into the meeting where the school mothers organize a fundraiser. Being the mother of an infant, she is breastfeeding, and manages to shock the assembled mothers by whipping out her left breast in order to feed the baby-- in the midst of the meeting.

It is patently absurd, and slightly derogatory.

In addition, Elena also belongs to the same fitness center as does Grace Fraser. You wonder whether she was going there on a scholarship-- the detail is not plausible on its face.

After a Pilates class one day Elena, fully frontally naked, walks up to a seated Grace and seems defiantly to be showing off her assets. 

She knows what Grace does not know-- namely that her baby was fathered by Grace’s husband, Jonathan. In truth, no one knows less about Grace's life than Grace. She was presented as a serious therapist-- she seems to know nothing about human psychology.

And Grace also does not know that, as a result of the affair, Jonathan has been fired from his hospital position. Eventually, she finds out, but you have to wonder how obtuse a human being can be. One suspects that the loan Jonathan sought from his father-in-law was a stop-gap to hide the absence of income. 

Not to be too obvious, but it is inconceivable that the sacking of a famous pediatric oncologist for having had an affair with the mother of a patient would almost not have made the news. Effectively, it is a public, not a private event. And, it would certainly have been choice gossip among the smarter set on the Upper East Side.

Making Grace ignorant is simply bad writing. But then, does Elena know that her paramour, the father of her child has lost his job. If so, she will most surely not be overly avid to become his new wife or even to merge their families, as she seems to have suggested on the night she was murdered.

In any event, shortly after Elena goes full frontal on us and immediately after she shows up at a school fundraiser, she is murdered. You might think that her cuckold husband is a good suspect, given that he is now bringing up the child his wife had with Jonathan. Surely, he had good reason to feel anger. And yet, the husband is a person of color, so that cannot be the case. 

You might consider Grace to be a good suspect, as she, an older woman, might feel more than a little anger at being flashed by a much younger woman.

Consider this. Grace has developed the habit of taking nighttime strolls through Manhattan’s more unsavory neighborhoods, in robe and nightgown. Again, these perambulations make no sense-- if she did it in reality, without security, she would not have survived very long. Also, the story, filled with misdirection, tells us that, on the night that Elena was murdered, Grace was seen on the street leading up to Elena’s studio-- the place where the murder took place.

Of course, Grace is a therapist, and apparently not a very good one, and she is a woman, so she could not have committed the crime.

The criminal is, you guessed it, the straight white male, Jonathan Fraser, the unemployed pediatric oncologist.

The difference between Jonathan and the other possible suspects is quite simply that Jonathan has no real reason for killing a woman he says he loves. According to the story, Elena wanted to meet his son or some such, which caused Jonathan to fly into a rage and hit her. You see, he lacks the milk of human empathy-- as Grace's courtroom testimony makes abundantly clear-- so therefore he is a homicidal maniac.

The psychology that produced this conclusion is lame.,

So, Jonathan rejected Elena and unceremoniously tossed her aside. She came back at him with a mallet. He grabbed the mallet and smashed her face. In death, her face was unrecognizable. Surely, other suspects might be threatened by her youthful beauty-- but Jonathan was not one of them.

In other words, you are watching a novelist and a screenwriter selling out art to propaganda.

I have not and do not intend to read the novel, but apparently it was about female self-empowerment. The story, as presented on the television screen shows a barely competent therapist who is completely oblivious to what is going on in her life, but who manages to exact revenge by destroying her husband from the witness stand.

This is not about self-empowerment. It is feminist propaganda masquerading as art. Sadly.

Among the show's flaws, aptly described by Rachel Cooke in The New Statesman, is Kidman’s bad acting. Not only bad acting, but, given how much work she has had done on her face-- that would be the correct phasing on the Upper East Side-- the fact that she has no facial expressions. She is as bad as Gretchen Whitmer.

Cooke sees it clearly:

I realise now that you can only laugh so many times at someone who, on receiving the worst possible news (your husband might have committed a murder!), simply stares into the middle distance like some poor coeliac vaguely wondering if it might be possible to get a gluten-free bagel.

Kidman’s expressions, whether sad or happy, calm or terrified, are now so weirdly similar I sometimes struggle to understand the inference of her lines. “I’m having a hard time functioning,” her character, Grace Fraser, told her plutocrat father (Sutherland) as the scale of the crisis she was facing became apparent. But since, at this moment, she looked exactly the same as when the pudendum pounced, when she was making a peanut butter sandwich, when she was having sex and when she was advising a distressed patient, I wondered for a moment if this was merely sarcasm. If she’d broken into a robot voice and shouted, “This does not compute, this does not compute!” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

One will not pretend to understand the psychology of flashing another woman in the locker room, but Cooke has a good understanding. It is more threatening than seductive:

Elena was also – until she was found dead – the owner of both the passive aggressive breasts, whipped out to feed her baby at a school fundraising committee meeting, and of the eye-level pudendum, flashed post-Pilates at the gym while Grace blinked away furiously. (I momentarily wondered if Elena’s wax job was not up to snuff, this being Manhattan, but then I remembered Grace is a therapist: vulvas are fascinating, but Brazilians are not.) Jonathan’s story is that Elena became obsessed with his life, and his wife, but that, although he confronted her about this, he did not kill her.

The flaw, as Cooke sees it, lies in the simple fact that the relationship between Grace and Jonathan makes no sense:

It’s that I simply don’t believe in Grace and Jonathan as a couple, whether they’re rolling around in their 400 thread count sheets, or sitting opposite each other on little plastic chairs in the visiting room of a state penitentiary. 

Roxana Hadadi has a similar critique-- noting that after showing us a couple of therapy sessions in the first episode, Grace’s professional life vanished from the screen:

For weeks now, I’ve wondered about Grace’s motivations and why she, a very respected psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard and what seemed to be a thriving practice until Kelley just became disinterested in maintaining that subplot, would just seem to throw up her hands and let Jonathan around their son. The man is a murder suspect! Who lied about his infidelity and his firing and his stealing money from your father and his plans to flee the city! And yet Grace was so passive for so long that I honestly cannot really tell if we were supposed to believe the character when she said she didn’t think Jonathan was capable of this crime—in past episodes, at least.

The show is filled with implausibilities, some of which I have mentioned. Hadadi describes those that occurred at the end of the story, when Jonathan, realizing that he is going to be found guilty, takes off in his Range Rover, with his frightened son by his side. It is supposed to be suspenseful-- will he or will he not crash the car? Will he or will he not jump off a bridge?

Hadadi describes the flaws in the chase scene:

Jonathan Fraser was exactly who we thought him to be, while it took Grace Fraser far too long to do anything about it, and Henry Fraser’s choices stayed making no sense at all. And once all those narrative fake-outs collapsed upon themselves, The Undoing felt quite hollow, didn’t it? 

… the [last] episode really swerves after Grace’s “bombshell” of a testimony. Why weren’t police stationed outside of Jonathan’s apartment to ensure that he didn’t try to flee? Why didn’t Grace personally walk Henry to school that morning, or have Franklin drop him off? (IN THE HELICOPTER, LIKE AN ENVIRONMENTALLY DESTRUCTIVE BALLER.) Why wasn’t Grace monitoring Henry’s phone? Why would Henry, after overhearing his father trying to frame him for murder, agree to go to breakfast with him without cluing in his mother or grandfather first? The Henry from last week, who so desperately wanted his parents to stay together over plates of prosciutto and cantaloupe (thank you, commenters!), probably would have done all this. But the Henry from this week, after realizing how unbelievably selfish and depraved his father is? Why would that Henry do this!

In the end, it is a banal story, a feminist fairy tale, one that lacks narrative cohesion, dramatic interest or competent performances. If all you get out of it is that the white male did it, because white males always do it-- you are witnessing artistic malpractice.

Hadadi concludes:

No, The Undoing was about the everyday evils, the very mundane depravity, conducted by men. It was about Jonathan Fraser’s sneer, and his shout, and his self-importance, and his sex drive, and his death wish. The petty narcissism of rich white men? It’s a tale as old as time, and I wish The Undoing had said anything new about it.


whitney said...

What an astounding review. Just the contempt the writers and everyone must hold us all in. If her husband got fired all her friends and acquaintances would know that. It's about a big world. But it furthered The Narrative, white man bad

Did anyone see that Whole Foods sent an email out the Friday after Thanksgiving to several states in the South saying the Turkeys they sold were not up to their standards though they were still safe to eat. They offered a $50 gift certificate for your trouble. I honestly think that Jeff Bezos just did that as a malicious joke because he could. Paying for all those turkeys was no big deal for him and he ruined a bunch of people's Thanksgiving and he hates the people that celebrate Thanksgiving. It's amazing how much the Elite Class hates us

Sam L. said...

This is not why I don't watch network TV, but it's a damned GOOD reason for me not to.

Turbosquid said...

We were able to see the first five episodes on HBO via our Amazon Prime subscription. The last episode (6) required a $17.99 payment to watch. Total bullshit. Thanks for the review of this tepid, drawn out moron-drama.

hayek said...

The other implausible occurrence was the otherwise competent defense counsel acquiescing in putting Grace on the stand, making her subject to cross-examination, with all the advantages that gives to the opposition, when she already felt she had a strong case of reasonable doubt, or a win. No good lawyer would try to gild the lily in that situation.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree completely. I also failed to notice that the prosecutor was apparently fed information by Grace's friend-- thus knowing the right questions to ask.

hayek said...

That information was probably the product of the walk in the park of Grace and her female lawyer buddy.