In ‘The Undoing’ and ‘Mrs. America,’ One TV Show Amplifies Its Jewish Characters as the Other Erases Them

FX’s feminist drama 'Mrs. America' embraces the likes of real-life figures Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug, while the HBO thriller 'The Undoing,' starring Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman, turns a Jewish couple into vanilla-flavored Wasps

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser in "The Undoing," left, and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan in "Mrs. America."
Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser in "The Undoing," left, and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan in "Mrs. America." Credit: NIKOTAVERNISE.COM/HBO/Cellcom tv / Sabrina Lantos/FX/Courtesy of Yes
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Hugh Grant would probably not be anyone’s first choice to play a Jewish pediatric oncologist from Long Island called Jonathan Sachs. Ditto Nicole Kidman as an Upper East Side Jewish therapist named Grace Reinhart Sachs. But their starring roles in HBO’s new thriller “The Undoing” are testimony to writer David E. Kelley’s de-Judaization of the source material – the 2014 novel “You Should Have Known,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz.

The Sachs have been turned into the distinctly Waspy Frasers in this six-part series, which is “just” watchable enough to hold your attention.

In truth, it’s much closer to being a bad show than a good one. But there’s enough intrigue created each week to make you tune in for the following episode, even if you may hate yourself for doing so.

The problem is that with all this talent, we really expected much more than a boilerplate thriller set in the world of New York elites – its generic nature encapsulated by its insistence on using Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” to soundtrack the lives of the rich and aimless.

Only five of the six episodes were sent to critics, which made me turn to the book to see how things transpired. As it turns out, I may as well have read the conclusion of a Nigella Lawson cookbook as the original novel, so wildly do the two storylines diverge in book and show.

I always smile a little at the chutzpah involved when I see a screenwriter receive a “Created by” credit when they’re adapting another person’s work. But it’s only fair that we apportion blame where it’s due here – and much of the undoing of “The Undoing” lies in Kelley’s hands.

The permanently in-demand writer earned plaudits for his dramatization of Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” in 2017. That was another glossy thriller whose mystery was set amid the wealthy (albeit on the other U.S. coast) and again starred Kidman. But that series generally hewed close to the source material before going its own crazy way in season two. (A third season is reportedly in the works.)

Here, Kelley ditches the thoughtful character study in Korelitz’s original novel and replaces it with plot, plot and more plot – none of which feels particularly original or plausible.

If you’ve already seen the opening episode, you’ll know that said plot revolves around the Frasers and the immigrant mother of a fourth-grade student who, like the couple’s only son Henry, attends the exclusive Reardon School on the Upper East Side.

Reading the book, it’s immediately apparent that “You Should Have Known” was never going to be an easy book to adapt. For instance – BOOK SPOILER – the Jonathan Sachs character never actually appears on a single page in “real time,” the story being told exclusively from Grace’s perspective when her seemingly perfect husband goes missing following the incident that drives both book and series forward.

Another key difference? The book doesn’t feature a single scene set in a courtroom, while “The Undoing” is basically one big murder trial. Classic Kelley terrain, in other words – given his years working on legal dramas such as “Goliath,” “Boston Legal” and, back in the day, “Ally McBeal.”

Then, of course, there’s the Waspiness of the Frasers compared to the Jewishness of the Sachs. The funny thing is, by their own admission, the Sachs are “bad Jews”: They attend Friday night dinner at Grace’s father’s luxury apartment but don’t know any of the prayers, far more likely to reach for a slice of artisan bread than a challah.

Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman in HBO's "The Undoing." Credit: Courtesy of Yes

Grace also bristles mentally at being called a “Jewish author,” noting to herself that her own mother was “as close to an antisemite as a Jewish person could get.” (In another big departure, in the novel she’s about to release a major book on relationships called “You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives Are Telling Them.”)

Their nonreligious-ness becomes a character trait in the book, something they choose for themselves and their 12-year-old son. In the series, however, Grace and Jonathan are insipid, non-characters who Kelley has stripped of their “original” selves and failed to fill the void, presenting them as the ultimate vanilla couple.

Early on, I got the sense that Grant and Kidman were improvising their dialogue – and that’s not meant as a compliment to their acting talents. They’re given so little to work with, they start overplaying the few things they do get, their facial expressions and mannerisms dialed up a little too high.

And while it’s nice to see the two actors sharing the screen for the first time (they share the distinct honor of playing the villain in the two “Paddington” movies”), they struggle to do all the heavy lifting by themselves. Grace in the book is a successful couples therapist, but here she’s a nervous nelly with a preference for long walks at the oddest of hours. How nervous? Her most commonly repeated line is “Henry, you scared me!” whenever her kid does so much as breathe.

As noted, the biggest frustration is knowing how much talent was involved. Danish director Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager”) makes New York look sensational – it didn’t take the Freedom Tower long to become the skyscraper du jour to symbolize Manhattan, in much the same way any shot of London now includes the Shard – but struggles to land any big emotional punches.

The cover to Jean Hanff Korelitz's "You Should Have Known," upon which "The Undoing" is loosely based.Credit: Grand Central Publishing

Donald Sutherland clearly has a gentleman’s agreement with Christopher Plummer that they take turns to play the part of “evil old patriarch” (Sutherland channeling his best President Snow from “The Hunger Games” is another major departure from the source material). And Sofie Gråbøl (“The Killing”) is so shamefully underused as lead prosecutor Catherine Stamper, it’s tempting to assume she was only cast to give Bier a compatriot to chat to during lunch breaks.

At heart, “The Undoing” feels like a potentially passable two-hour movie stretched into a miniseries – a fault it shares with another recently adapted thriller: Apple TV+’s “Defending Jacob.”

But given the intriguing source material, “The Undoing” must be chalk-outlined up as a missed opportunity to get under the skin of a well-to-do New York Jewish couple with skeletons in the closet. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the Jared and Ivanka biopic to see that particular storyline.

‘Mrs. America’

One of the best shows of the year has finally reached Israel, with Yes Drama debuting “Mrs. America” some six months after it first aired in the United States.

Creator Dahvi Waller’s nine-part drama is so much more entertaining than any show about the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s had any right to be. It showcases some of the most famous figures on either side of the divide – though “chasm” is perhaps more accurate, as this wonderful show illustrates.

On the liberal side we have the likes of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug; on the conservative side, we have the fearsome Phyllis Schlafly and her white housewives’ crusade to stop women’s rights becoming enshrined in the Constitution.

In short, these are nine of the most enjoyable hours 2020 has had to offer – and, unlike “The Undoing,” isn’t afraid to lean in to some of the Jewish characters at the battle’s core. You will not hear a line like “I couldn’t get elected president of the Bronx chapter of Hadassah” in Kelley’s thriller, that’s for certain.

I’m not sure why it took so long for the show to hit Israel, but the timing has proved fortuitous. What better time for a show about the war between American feminism and conservatism to air than at the end of a week in which an antiliberal female judge was elected to the Supreme Court, throwing into jeopardy those women’s rights won some 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade?

Cate Blanchett as archconservative Phyllis Schlafly in "Mrs. America."Credit: /AP

The show’s casting directors, Robin D. Cook and Carmen Cuba, must have had a ball picking the actresses to star in this ensemble drama. They did a terrific job, with Tracey Ullman and Margo Martindale perfectly cast as the likes of Jewish fireballs Friedan and Bella Abzug.

In fact, the only person who might have had as much fun as the casting directors is Mary Ramos, the music supervisor responsible for the note-perfect, ’70s-stacked soundtrack.

I must confess, I’ve never been a huge fan of Cate Blanchett’s work, but she’s compelling here in the difficult role of the archconservative Schlafly – an Illinois housewife with six kids, a shamelessly old-fashioned husband and who “looks like a Barbie doll but opens her mouth and sounds like George Wallace,” according to Steinem.

There are great performances wherever you look in this drama drawn from real-life events and people. However, it’s not hard to spot the one major character who’s a fictional construct. I won’t name the actress (who plays the part beautifully). Suffice to say, she’s the only character whose ideology shifts by the story’s end and gets to enjoy that character arc so beloved of creative writing professors.

Rose Byrne, left, and Tracey Ullman as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in "Mrs. America."Credit: Sabrina Lantos/AP

For me, there’s only one piece of miscasting – and that’s Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem. Yes, the props department provide the big hair and big glasses. But crucially, the Australian actress never manages to convey the big intellect: This Steinem is more Annie Hall than the hall-filling iconoclast who would inspire a generation of women. (Though Steinem herself was only Jewish on her father’s side, she famously said she always identified as a Jew “wherever there is antisemitism.”)

What’s particularly fascinating about “Mrs. America” is that it’s impossible to avoid the fact that it’s being told from the losing side: i.e., the liberal perspective. Whoever said history is written by winners clearly never spent much time in Hollywood.

And as much as I admired the way the show didn’t seek to demonize Schlafly, it doesn’t exactly give her any great speeches to serve her cause either.

There’s also a pettiness to many of the conservative characters portrayed here, a sharp contrast with the kumbaya vibe generally found within the liberal camp, no better demonstrated than at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. Still, that may also be why archliberals Ullman and Martindale stand out for their characters’ abrasiveness – Ullman’s feminist activist Friedan feeling she is perceived as the Wicked Witch of the West to Steinem’s Glinda.

Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug in "Mrs. America."Credit: Sabrina Lantos/FX / Courtesy of Yes

I loved “Mrs. America” from beginning to moving end. But there’s one monologue that particularly stayed with me, delivered by one of Phyllis’ young “Stepford” housewives, chilling in its obvious nod to the present day: “We are in the midst of a conservative revolution,” Rosemary (Melanie Lynskey) crows. “After years of being ostracized and discounted, religious views are being heard in the political arena.”

Something else to get depressed about ahead of Tuesday’s election and Trump’s relentless pursuit of the evangelical and Orthodox Jewish vote.

There’s another depressing realization at the end of this memorable show: “Owning the libs” didn’t start with the launch of Fox News in 1996. Conservatives have been honing this particular craft since the battle for equal rights was lost a half-century ago. Perhaps Steinem herself captured the state of affairs best with the title of her most recent book: “The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!”

‘Truth Seekers’

Finally, a few words on the new Amazon Prime show co-created by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Imagine a lighthearted British version of “The X-Files” over eight 30-minute episodes, with an especially bonkers plot at its core, and you’re on your way to pigeonholing this little oddity.

The show relies an awful lot on the chemistry and charm of its two protagonists: Gus (Frost), a broadband engineer-cum-paranormal investigator; and his new young sidekick, Elton John (Samson Kayo) – and yes, that is the level of the humor.

I enjoyed the earlier episodes best, when the show serves up a nice mix of jokes (a hotel manager points to a door and says “Room 237 – it’s a twin”) and mild chills. But ultimately, it’s never quite funny enough or scary enough to fully convince.

There are some nice touches, though. I particularly liked the holy water being used as screenwash to ward off ghosts and a paranormal magazine called The White Sheet – not to be confused with a neo-Nazi effort called The White Sheets. Fans of Pegg and Frost will undoubtedly find plenty to amuse them here.

Emma D'Arcy, Nick Frost and Samson Kayo in Amazon Prime's "Truth Seekers."Credit: Amazon Studios

But it’s all just a little too inconsequential to leave a lasting impression, unlike the best of their collaborations – like classic ’90s sitcom “Spaced” and, of course, their 2004 horror spoof “Shaun of the Dead.” There are definitely no lines here to match “Who died and made you king of the zombies?”

“The Undoing” is on Hot HBO on Mondays at 10 P.M. and Yes Drama on Sundays at 9 P.M., with new episodes available every Monday on Yes and Hot VOD, Cellcom tv, Sting TV and Now TV. “Mrs. America” is on Yes Drama on Sundays at 9:45 P.M. and also Yes VOD. “Truth Seekers” is out now on Amazon Prime Video.

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