There are whodunits that, underneath all the twists and fake-outs, are rooted in bigger themes. The first season of “Big Little Lies,” for example, wasn’t only about the death that bookended the story; it was about the bonds among women, spousal abuse, and the aftermath of rape, among other things. The guessing game over who died and why — which was entertaining and absorbing — was all in service of formidable social issues. There was a lot in play in the slow build to the denouement, just as there was in “Sharp Objects,” which explored addiction and female legacies while solving its crime.
“The Undoing,” a new HBO miniseries that, like “Big Little Lies,” stars Nicole Kidman and is written by David E. Kelley, is entertaining and absorbing, too, but not in service of anything thought-provoking. Premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., it’s a straight-up, highly manipulative mystery game, as it toys with your suspicions and certainties, and you will cycle through a long list of potential perps along the way. Everyone appears to have a possible motive — especially if you don’t look too closely or think too logically. In the six episodes of “The Undoing,” you will also get a tour of the New York City of the wealthy and well-coiffed, an elegant but chilly place where you only think you intimately know the people with whom you share an Upper East Side duplex. The fashions are high-priced, sophisticated, and at times a bit showy, like the socialites who wear them.
Kidman’s Grace and Hugh Grant’s Jonathan Fraser are model one-percenters. She is a therapist who helps plan fund-raising events for their only son Henry’s elite private school. He is a pediatric oncologist whose natural charisma is almost overkill, since, you know, he tries to save children for a living. They appear to be in love, and they still have sex. But cracks in their marriage emerge when a fellow parent at Henry’s school, Elena (Matilda De Angelis), is discovered dead by her son, brutally murdered to the point of unrecognizability. As a Latina with a lot less money than the white mothers, Elena had struggled to fit in; her angst was clear. Grace tries to find Jonathan to talk through the murder, but he has disappeared on a business trip . . . without his phone. . . . Is it possible her husband is caught up in this mess? Meanwhile, the tabloid media is obsessed with the story since readers love low behavior by high society.
Directed by Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager”), “The Undoing” brings in Grace’s super-wealthy father, played by a typically hammy Donald Sutherland; Elena’s low-key husband (Ismael Cruz Cordova); and Grace’s lawyer friend, Sylvia (Lily Rabe). Wisely, Bier gives us a full sense of Elena before she is killed; we see her trying to befriend and yet intimidate an uncomfortable Grace, particularly in a locker room scene in which Elena uses her naked body as a kind of psychological torture device. De Angelis leaves a strong impression, so that Elena’s ghost seems to linger throughout the rest of the series.
In recent years, Grant has taken heavier roles that play off his identity as a bumbling charmer, most notably in the excellent “A Very English Scandal.” Here, he again uses his reputation as a romantic lead effectively, as we try to determine Jonathan’s guilt or innocence (HBO provided critics with five episodes, so I have no spoilers). It’s fun to watch Grant in action, dodging our presumptions about his character. Kidman is good, too, if a bit distractingly waxen. She is convincing as a therapist who is intelligent and probing with her patients, but who doesn’t look beyond the surfaces of her own life. In this engaging, sometimes boilerplate thriller, as her protected, entitled world falls apart, Grace is forced to keep her eyes wide open.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Donald Sutherland, Noah Jupe, Matilda De Angelis, Edgar Ramirez, Lily Rabe
On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.