Do we love or hate Grace’s green coat? And who foresaw this thrilling third act of Hugh Grant’s career?

These and more are important questions raised by David E Kelley’s latest creation and HBO’s new hit miniseries, The Undoing. But they all stem from the one thing central to the drama, the one after which the whole genre from which The Undoing so successfully springs is named – whodunnit?

Kelley’s show is the tale of the intrusion of murder into the perfect lives of heiress and therapist Grace (Nicole Kidman) and paediatric oncologist Jonathan (Grant) Fraser. When Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) – the mother of a scholarship boy at the elite school that the Frasers’ son, Henry, attends – is killed, Jonathan’s affair with her is revealed and he – especially as her boy was one of his patients and he subsequently lost his job when his superiors found out about the relationship – becomes the prime suspect.

Donald Sutherland, left, as Franklin, and Noah Jupe as his grandson Henry.
Donald Sutherland, left, as Franklin, and Noah Jupe as his grandson Henry. Photograph: HBO/HBO undefined

Prime but, crucially, not only. There are a variety of other well-placed, plausible options. People with the motive and opportunity to murder Elena include but are not limited to: Grace, if she is faking her ignorance of the affair; Elena’s husband, if he found out about it; Henry, who did have suspicions, and Grace’s father, Franklin (a customarily magisterial Donald Sutherland), who has always hated Jonathan and is wealthy enough to have anyone killed/framed/banged up for life on a whim. Also, why exactly is that blonde lawyer friend in it so much for no immediately apparent reason, and why is she so friendly with the prosecutor?

Thus, The Undoing has hooked a nation. In fact, several nations. It has piled on viewers with every episode, as those who have watched the previous ones on delay pitch up for the next weekly dose. It’s on course to be watched by 10 million people in its native US, a terrific number in these multiple-platform, fragmented, super-competitive televisual times.

That green coat … Nicole Kidman in The Undoing.
That green coat … Nicole Kidman in The Undoing. Photograph: Gotham/GC Images
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It has been the biggest launch for a US drama over here on Sky Atlantic, the top watch on Canada’s streaming service Crave, pulled in the largest premiere figures for Australia’s Foxtel since 2017 (when another Kelley/Kidman collaboration, Big Little Lies, took the crown), and so very much for most markets in between.

More valuably, perhaps, even than that, it has seized the public imagination, gaining traction on social media and spawning countless WhatsApp groups that are the equivalent in furloughed and socially distanced 2020 of gathering round the watercooler to discuss the latest twists and turns of everybody’s current favourite story.

The whodunnit has always been a popular form, of course, in almost every medium. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Murder in the Rue Morgue (1841) is often cited as the inaugural written version (though The Three Apples in One Thousand and One Nights may beg to differ), unless your definition maps more neatly on to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone in 1868, thought of as the first detective novel.

The author Edgar Allen Poe.
The author Edgar Allen Poe. Photograph: AP

The desire to find out who did A Thing is strong in all of us. We can’t see a problem – even if fictional – without wanting to pursue its resolution. What a would-be bestselling book or hit film or globally popular series must succeed in doing, as The Undoing does, is delivering enough twists to keep us interested without spinning off into wholly implausible realms, and parcelling them out at the right pace. The Undoing had enough confidence in its abilities here to risk sticking to what is now a risky, retro move of broadcasting one episode a week rather than dropping them all at once and letting viewers binge-watch at their own convenience. This only works if your product is good enough to mean the seven days in between are filled with growing buzz rather than interest lost, and it is a gamble that has paid off here in spades. It’s possible too that I am not alone in feeling an odd sort of gratitude and loyalty at being provided with one fixed point around which to structure my lockdown week, especially now that Bake Off has abandoned us.

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It’s also surely true that we are currently more in need of tales of problems solved and universes ordered than ever before. Just as another formulaic episode of NCIS or Law & Order: SVU always hit the spot after a stressful day at work where no problem seemed to yield to your efforts within 45 minutes plus ad breaks, so now does The Undoing and its ilk offer a respite from the increasingly insoluble problems that surround us.

Whydunnits – dramas that dig deep into perpetrators’ and victims’ psyches, have their place, but we don’t have the mental bandwidth for that right now. With a whodunnit, for an hour a week life has narrative shape, events have causes and consequences, and justice, ultimately, will be served. The good will end happily and the bad unhappily. Watch enough television and you can pretend this is not just what fiction means.

Other classic TV whodunnits

Larry Hagman starred as JR Ewing in the 80s classic Dallas
Larry Hagman starred as JR Ewing in the 80s classic Dallas. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The ur-whodunnit of television. Impossible to explain to the children of today how the question of Who Shot JR once united us all. We just didn’t know! And we had to know! And there was absolutely no way of finding out, until they chose to tell us. No internet rumours because no internet. No leaks because in 1980 people were capable of not spoiling the fun. The cliffhanger shots rang out in March and the answer didn’t come til November, in an episode literally called Who Done It. Stetsons off all round.

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Who killed Danny Latimer was the question on everyone’s lips in 2013, during the unexpected runaway success of Chris Chibnall’s tale of child murder by the sea. Lightly harrowing and wholly gripping, just how we like it.

All Agatha Christie adaptations
But especially the one where they all did it. No spoilers, but yeah, that one, definitely.

The Killing (US)
The third season. Who is killing the teen runaways in Seattle? See, you are already desperate to know, aren’t you? Such is the power of the whodunnit.

Kyle MacLachlan, far right, and other cast members of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
Kyle MacLachlan, far right, and other cast members of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Photograph: Allstar/ARTISAN ENTERTAINMENT/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Twin Peaks
David Lynch’s brilliant, batshit exploration of small town American life and the murder of Laura Palmer has influenced uncountable dramas since, including Veronica Mars, Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars and just about anything else you feel you are slightly too old for but would make time to watch if you didn’t just fall asleep in front of the TV every night these days.



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