I have never been a big fan of Nicole Kidman or Hugh Grant. Heart of hearts: I probably just resented them both for being so pretty.
But I am in love with their performances in HBO’s “The Undoing,” and I found my mood brightening lately on gray, gloomy Sunday afternoons remembering I would get to see them again in a few hours in this superb murder mystery on HBO.
The last couple of Sundays, I also found myself doing something in connection with two limited series that I cannot remember doing in a long time: watching one show and recording another ― and then viewing the recorded program right after the one I had just watched ended. I’ve been doing that with “The Undoing” and “Roadkill,” starring Hugh Laurie on PBS. I love “Roadkill” with its savage take on British politics, and I have long been crazy about Laurie. But “The Undoing” is the one I needed to see first.
Either way, it is two hours of genuine TV pleasure that I have been thinking a lot about lately. At first, I told myself I was enjoying the two dramas so much mainly as an escape from the world in which we are all living these days. It’s a world dominated by a vicious pandemic that is killing us in record numbers and an American president who not only refused to acknowledge the deadliness of the virus, but served as a super-spreader of it by not wearing a mask and holding rallies and other large gatherings before his election loss to former Vice President Joe Biden this month.
And now, the president’s refusal to acknowledge his election loss and allow a normal transition of power threatens the ability of President-elect Biden’s team to hit the ground running in fighting the virus once it takes office. As a media critic whose focus is the place where media, politics and culture meet, I have been up to my ears in writing about that nightmare in recent months.
So, yeah, I’ll take a two-hour TV break from seeing Donald Trump on my screen spreading crazy conspiracy theories, dog whistles, disinformation and lies any week I can.
But with TV productions that have this kind of hold on me it is always more than just a matter of escape. It is usually a matter of culture, too, as well as excellence of production.
I was not looking for any particular synergy between “The Undoing” and the cultural life of the nation today. When I received the first promotional emails from HBO, I thought, “A drama about two people of great privilege, both doctors, living in Manhattan. No thanks.”
Fortunately, as a society, more people are starting to understand and acknowledge disparities in privilege thanks in no small part to the racial reckoning we are going through and the words of the Black Lives Matter movement. I thought my time would be better spent writing about TV productions that explore that process of enlightenment.
But once I got hooked on the series, I came to realize “The Undoing” is very much about privilege: racial, class, economic, educational, professional and inherited. It can, in fact, be viewed as a highly informed meditation on privilege, which is how one part of my brain is now processing it. The arc of the series so far is watching these two creatures of tremendous white privilege, Grace and Jonathan Fraser (Kidman and Grant), being stripped of it.
Jonathan goes from pediatric oncologist at a prestigious Manhattan hospital to inmate fighting for his life with another prisoner in the jailhouse yard. Grace, meanwhile, goes from mental health therapist coolly and confidently advising patients in her private practice to someone appearing to lose her own mental bearings as she is being investigated as a suspect in the murder of a woman with whom her husband had a sexual affair and fathered a child.
Grace’s latest bit of late night wandering in a kind of daze resulted in her passing out in a park and waking up in a hospital. She has moved from do-it-all professional woman and mother with a young son to an adult daughter who is suddenly very dependent emotionally and financially on her own father (Donald Sutherland). In fact, she and her son (Noah Jupe) have moved in with him.
But let me not give short shrift to the artistic excellence of the acting, writing and direction.
The power of Kidman’s performance is her ability to shift among multiple selves. None of us is just one identity: therapist, wife, mother or daughter. And even within the individual identities, there are changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour from, say, confident and totally in control therapist to one who is suddenly unsure of the things she thought to be true. As the axis of Grace’s orientation shifts with almost each new bit of information she gets about her husband’s secret life and newfound dangers to her and her son, Kidman communicates the changes in Grace through everything from speech to body language to appearance. It’s a masterful performance.
For those who thought Grant capable only of light, romantic comedy, “The Undoing” has to be a revelation. The series has given him a chance to impress the previously unimpressed with his dramatic range. I know he’s impressed me in a serious way.
But the male performance I keep coming back to is that of Sutherland as Grace’s wealthy father, a fascinating mixture of love and menace. Sutherland’s exquisitely controlled acting is at the heart of that depiction, but director Susanne Bier enhances it with close-up camera work that seems to explore every plane and shadow of Sutherland’s craggy face and commanding profile. The visual result: a portrait of fading patriarchy trying to rally for one last battle in a changing world.
“Roadkill,” which is set in the U.K., doesn’t have quite the tension of “The Undoing,” nor does it have the wide range of talent. But it does have Laurie, some fine supporting actors and a wicked script that captures the sleaziness of politics today as it sadly exists in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Laurie plays Peter Laurence, a British minister with lots of secrets and no morals that I have noticed. And he’s proud of it. It’s another brilliant turn by the one-time star of “House.”
“What’s the one thing you and I have learned?” Laurence says to an aide. “You can get away with anything if you just brazen it out.”
Sound like anyone we have had the misery of knowing in American political life in recent years?
I am happy to see PBS delivering programs like “Roadkill” and competing head-to-head with the best of premium cable. Not everyone can afford HBO or the streaming service Netflix, which is now offering Season 4 of “The Crown,” with a wonderfully merciless look at the worm known as Prince Charles.
The ability of PBS, which everyone can afford, to compete with such excellence matters to all of us. Media have already moved too far in the direction of two Americas, with great content for those who can afford stiff subscription fees, and mostly junk for everyone else. PBS is rising to the democratic challenge of quality programs for everyone, making our Sunday nights a little richer and more pleasurable. Here’s hoping they can keep it up.