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Secrets And Betrayals Upend A Seemingly Perfect Life In 'The Undoing'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

David E. Kelley's career as a TV writer has gone through three distinctly different, equally impressive phases. First, he was the newcomer, a lawyer who jumped at Steven Bochco's invitation to write for television and write stories about characters who had already been established on "L.A. Law." Then, he created and wrote and ran his own TV shows and did that so well that two of them, "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," won Emmys respectively for outstanding comedy series and outstanding drama series - the same year, in 1999. Never happened before, hasn't happened since.

But after creating his own programs from scratch, including "Picket Fences" and "Boston Legal," David E. Kelley has switched gears again for what looks to be a very rewarding third act. In the past five years, he's created some terrific television by adapting books written by others and turning them into very novelistic series and miniseries. His version of Liane Moriarty's "Big Little Lies" was a wonderful triumph for HBO, with stunningly rich performances by Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and others. Kelley also did some very intense and haunting things with his adaptation of Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes," starring Brendan Gleeson. And now, starting Sunday, he's reuniting with HBO and with Nicole Kidman for a TV adaptation of yet another intense psychological drama.

Based on the novel "You Should Have Known" by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the HBO miniseries is called "The Undoing." Kidman stars as Grace Fraser, a successful therapist in New York City who lives what looks like a perfect life. She's married to an oncologist named Michael (ph) played by Hugh Grant, who's as devoted to his job and patients as she is to hers. They love their teenage son, Henry, and they appear to love one another deeply, with the playful conversational banter that comes with years of friendly familiarity.


HUGH GRANT: (As Jonathan) Why are you so dressed up? What's his name?

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Grace) Ladies tea, planning the fundraiser.

GRANT: (As Jonathan) Oh, the school auction. Did I mention I'm not going?

KIDMAN: (As Grace) Did I mention you are?

GRANT: (As Jonathan) I think you'll find I'm not, my love. Isn't it enough we give them tons of money anyway?

KIDMAN: (As Grace) We actually don't give them money.

GRANT: (As Jonathan) Well, your dad does, which is very sweet of him.

BIANCULLI: The opening episode of "The Undoing" takes its time establishing these characters and their relationships and their respective job skills. With Michael, we see his soothing bedside manner with a young cancer patient. And with Grace, we see her analyze quite probingly a patient in a therapy session.


KIDMAN: (As Grace) Rebecca (ph), I have met few people more discriminating than you. You read 100 Yelp reviews before choosing someone to install your carpet. Am I right? You try on 20 pairs of shoes before making a choice. You do background checks on your hair colorists. You did a background check on me, no doubt. You vet everything - everything, which is fine. I mean, that's appropriate.


KIDMAN: (As Grace) But an attractive man comes along and shows an interest in you and judgment, be gone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Rebecca) No, that is not what is happening.

KIDMAN: (As Grace) I mean, the day that you met Kevin (ph), you floated into this office. It was an appointment that was made to deal with the anguish of husband No. 2, only to declare that you'd met husband No. 3. So I'm saying, maybe it's possible that you're less of a victim of Kevin's moods than you are of your own.

BIANCULLI: But at home, Grace and Michael's apparently perfect relationship is about to shatter. As in "Big Little Lies," there are major secrets and betrayals beneath the surface. And "The Undoing" may as well be titled "The Unraveling." Very little of what we see at the start holds up to later scrutiny. But because of the way Kelley writes this adaptation and Susanne Bier directs it, we keep returning to those earlier scenes with new insights. What seemed innocent at first glance becomes, in time, infused with much darker motives.

Matilda De Angelis plays Elena, a beautiful young woman who enters the high society world of the charity auction where Grace is a volunteer. Before long, Elena becomes central to the entire story in ways that continue to surprise. Also before long, there's a murder. Other co-stars include Lily Rabe, Edgar Ramirez and Donald Sutherland. And as with all David Kelley TV productions, the casting, like the writing, is key.

I'm not going to say any more about what happens in "The Undoing." I don't want to give it away. But Nicole Kidman at the center of it all delivers one of the best and most nuanced roles of her entire career. She's found some very, very rewarding things to do on television lately, and so has David E. Kelley.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson. Born in Ethiopia and raised by adopted parents in Sweden, he now lives in Harlem, where his restaurant The Red Rooster is a community landmark. His new book is part recipes and partly an appreciation of Black contributions to American food. It's called "The Rise." I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.