As 2020 comes to a close, The A.V. Club applies our hindsight to the year in TV, finding common themes among seemingly disparate shows.
Note: This post discusses plot points from The Undoing and Little Fires Everywhere.
Big Little Lies was the kind of prestige limited series that cable networks and streaming services salivate over. The eight-episode series from 2017 had a cast packed with box-office stars (like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman) thrust into the middle of a murder mystery set against the idyllic backdrop of oceanside Monterey, California. Based on a bestselling novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies showed that pulling apart the picture-perfect façades of beach house-dwelling rich people made for riveting—and award-winning—television. It provided escapism as well as a harmless dose of schadenfreude (for those of us without beach houses). That success led HBO to drag a second season out of the original source material, which, despite the welcome addition of Meryl Streep to the cast, turned out to be too much of a stretch.
It’s not too surprising, then, that HBO would revisit the mysterious-rich-people trope this year—even utilizing two of BLL’s biggest names—while Hulu also entered the fray. HBO reunited BLL writer-executive producer David E. Kelley with Kidman in The Undoing, an adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known. Witherspoon, meanwhile, took her executive-producing skills over to Hulu, co-starring with Kerry Washington in the TV version of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.
In both stories, the veneer of the perfect, upper-crust life begins to crumble after the arrival of an artistic outsider. (Coincidentally, each story also concerns a character named Elena.) In Little Fires, Washington’s enigmatic and creative Mia comes to town with her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood), and both Mia and Pearl soon become entwined with the various members of the elite Richardson clan. As matriarch Elena Richardson, Witherspoon is a paragon of perfection in the carefully planned society of Shaker Heights, Ohio. It’s the kind of regimented place where the blades of grass on everyone’s lawn are required to be a certain height, and that suits Elena just fine. The arrival of an unconventional artist like Mia into her life reveals to Elena the levels of privilege she enjoys but has barely even acknowledged; meanwhile her youngest child, the rebellious Izzy (Megan Stott), moves further and further away from her, growing closer to kindred spirit Mia.
As The Undoing’s Grace, Kidman spends the series promenading around Manhattan sporting the world’s most gorgeous head of cascading red curls and a series of sumptuous coats, each one more covetable than the last. Like Elena Richardson, Grace appears to have perfect life, but even though she’s a psychologist, she lacks the ability—or will—for the kind of introspection that would reveal that her apparently ideal existence is also a lie.
The Undoing’s conflict is centered around her duplicitous husband, Jonathan. In the book, told entirely from Grace’s perspective, Jonathan only appears in flashbacks. Fortunately for his about-to-be-overflowing awards mantel, Hugh Grant appears in every Undoing episode as Jonathan, skewing his legendary charm into a chilling portrayal of a psychopath. He falls in love with sculptor Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), the mother of a patient who winds up giving birth to his child. He even arranges for Elena’s older son to attend the same school as his and Grace’s son Henry, but when his two worlds then collide, he and Elena quarrel, and he kills her in a murderous rage.
Little Fires Everywhere’s Elena frantically grabs whatever control she still has over her family in an attempt to maintain her pampered cocoon; she’s also not above snooping into Mia’s past to try to find ammunition against her. Witherspoon comes as close to playing a villain in Little Fires as she ever has; Elena is like if Election’s obdurately determined Tracy Flick grew up unfulfilled by all of her political plans, settling for a career in local journalism and raising four children. But as Elena’s conflict with Mia grows, igniting just like the conflagrations of the title, she eventually learns the hardest lesson of parenting: the more tightly you try to hold on to your kids, the more they’re bound to slip through your fingers. Eventually, Elena discovers that she barely knows her children at all—she’s devastated to learn that her Harvard-bound high-school senior Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn)—has had an abortion, and even her other kids are so fed up with her controlling antics that, in a departure from the book, they set fire to the family home in a violent act of rebellion (in the book, it’s Izzy who sets the fires). Izzy runs away, and Mia and Pearl leave town; Elena is left staring at the elaborate art projects Mia left behind, trying to retrace where everything went wrong.
Grace, on the other hand, runs the gamut from startled to shocked. The Undoing effectively eliminates the “mystery” part of “murder mystery” by making the killer turn out to be our only major suspect, but Grant is so chilling as the culprit, it’s almost worth it. Grace also has her maternal moments, trying to protect her 12-year-old son Henry (Noah Jupe) from the quickly brewing scandal and the painful accusations against his father. Because she still loves her husband, for a while it seems as if she’s giving him the benefit of the doubt, even though he admits to the affair. But when Jonathan tries to spin a theory that Henry is the killer in a desperate attempt to free himself, she realizes that her husband is the guilty one. Grace then offers testimony that seals Jonathan’s guilty fate; she’s practically smiling at the end, so happy to have his monstrous presence extracted from her and Henry’s lives.
The Undoing, with its ultimately A-to-B plot progression, doesn’t really offer too many life lessons, other than “Hugh Grant is a better actor than you probably thought” and “Don’t marry a psychopath.” Little Fires gives the viewer much more to explore. Both make escapist fodder from the lives of the upper crust; Grace retreats from her own ideal apartment to the even more luxurious Upper East Side home of her father (Donald Sutherland). Her son attends an exclusive private school; early in the series, Grace attends a planning meeting for a silent auction fundraiser that includes items worth thousands of dollars. When she and Henry need to escape the questioning crowds after Jonathan is accused of Elena’s murder, there’s a handy family country estate available.
The Richardsons’ home isn’t Manhattan, but it’s the Midwestern version of upper crust. The kids go to a top-of-the-line public school and have their hearts set on the Ivy League. A working-class mom like Mia has few options there, and winds up working for Elena as a servant (although Elena tries to spin it as “house manager”). Izzy tries to rebel against the conformity required by the wealthy social strata she’s trapped in, and ends up having to leave it altogether.
Her daughter’s departure—and her deflagrated home—finally show Elena how wrong she’s been. When asked who’s responsible for the fire, she says that she is, and in a painful way, she’s right. Elena ends the novel by vowing to search for Izzy forever. As series creator Liz Tigelaar pointed out in an interview with The A.V. Club, that’s a tough emotion to embody onscreen. Instead, we’re left with the ruined Elena as a cautionary tale to other parents: It doesn’t matter how perfect your life looks on the outside if it’s crumbling from within. Both The Undoing and Little Fires Everywhere host this theme, but The Undoing’s shallow popcorn mystery is fleeting. The tragic events that unfold at the end of Little Fires Everywhere leave behind a trail of effective despondency, resulting in a series that’s much harder to shake.