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Nicole Kidman And Hugh Grant Star In New HBO Thriller, 'The Undoing'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In HBO's new drama "The Undoing," Nicole Kidman stars as a wealthy psychotherapist who realizes her husband isn't all he claims to be. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the limited series, which debuts tonight, is a well-crafted modern thriller undercut by some seriously annoying issues.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: On the surface, Nicole Kidman's Grace Fraser and her husband, Jonathan, have the perfect lives as upwardly mobile urban professionals, respected jobs as a therapist and children's cancer doctor, a kid in a prestigious private school and a sprawling townhouse in Manhattan. Husband Jonathan, played with unctuous charm by Hugh Grant, is the kind of guy who shrugs off his privilege with witty, self-conscious comments even when talking to his son about an insulting music teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNDOING")

HUGH GRANT: (As Jonathan Fraser) Yeah, Rosenbaum (ph) - he's an unhappy man. It is never a good idea to take measure of ourselves through the eyes of the joyless.

NOAH JUPE: (As Henry Fraser) Well, you can be joyless.

GRANT: (As Jonathan Fraser) Beg your pardon?

JUPE: (As Henry Fraser) Yeah. You can be joyless when you're stressed.

GRANT: (As Jonathan Fraser) Do I seem stressed a lot?

JUPE: (As Henry Fraser) Lately.

GRANT: (As Jonathan Fraser) Really? Well, now I'm stressed about being stressed, so thank you very much.

JUPE: (As Henry Fraser) You're welcome.

DEGGANS: Kidman's Grace Fraser is the kind of therapist whose advice to her patients always winds up being a weird kind of foreshadowing, like this moment, when she criticizes a patient who's complaining about her third failed marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNDOING")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Grace Fraser) You do background checks on your hair colorist. You did a background check on me, no doubt. You vet everything - everything. But an attractive man comes along and shows an interest in you, and judgment begone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're blaming me.

KIDMAN: (As Grace Fraser) I'm not blaming you. I'm just saying there's a particular type of person that you want to be with, and maybe you're a little too quick to see that person in the men that you meet instead of seeing what's actually there.

DEGGANS: Given the title of this limited series, you just know that Grace is going to regret those words before long.

"The Undoing" was created by David E. Kelley, who's responsible for network TV hits like "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" and also wrote HBO's hit series "Big Little Lies." Kidman's character here is quite a bit like her character from "Big Little Lies" - beautiful, smart and accomplished but left damaged after trusting the wrong man.

That also hints at some of the things I find annoying about "The Undoing," which deftly sets the table for a gripping drama with loads of twists. But Kelley telegraphs too many of them, so you see them coming a mile away. For example, Grace has uncomfortable run-ins with another mother from her kid's school named Elena in several places. Then Grace gets a call from a different mother at the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNDOING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It was Elena. She was found dead.

KIDMAN: (As Grace Fraser) What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There's been no official word. At first, I heard aneurysm. But what the school is being told is that she was murdered.

DEGGANS: I don't want to spoil what happens next, but you can guess that it upends Grace's perfect life and centers on her choice of husband.

There's a lot to like here - magnetic performances from Grant as Jonathan Fraser and Donald Sutherland as Grace's loving, super-rich father, the way New York is presented as an alluring, sometimes menacing, additional character in a story with enough twists to keep you guessing until the end.

But then Kelley drops a moment that telegraphs what's coming so clearly, you want to shake him out of network TV mode. Listen to this conversation between Grace and her 12-year-old son, Henry, played by Noah Jupe, explaining why Jonathan doesn't want a dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNDOING")

KIDMAN: (As Grace Fraser) He was home alone. He was taking care of the family dog. It got out of the house, and it was hit by a car and killed.

JUPE: (As Henry Fraser) Really? Did his parents...

KIDMAN: (As Grace Fraser) Blamed him for it.

JUPE: (As Henry Fraser) What?

KIDMAN: (As Grace Fraser) Yeah. That's why he hates talking about it.

DEGGANS: It's a story that reveals Jonathan's been smoothly lying to his son for years and probably told a different lie to his wife. But it's also the kind of clumsy storytelling move that isn't necessary and leaves HBO's "The Undoing" a little undone.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.