Reel Estate

HBO’s ‘The Undoing’ is a Manhattan murder mystery but the true killer is the real estate

By Kelly Kreth  |
November 5, 2020 - 12:30PM

The psychological thriller stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as the Frasers, a wealthy couple who live with their teen son on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Niko Tavernise/HBO

HBO’s new miniseries “The Undoing” is like a mashup between a fictional “Real Housewives of the Upper East Side” and “Dateline”—in the best possible way. Think: “The Primates of Park Avenue” crossed with an Agatha Christie novel.  

The psychological thriller produced by David E. Kelley stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as the Frasers, a wealthy, highly educated couple living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with their teen son. Grace is a psychotherapist and Jonathan is a pediatric oncologist, both are into philanthropy and are seemingly altruistic do-gooders but as the show unfolds, we find things aren’t always what they seem. 

The Frasers and their circle of friends do what tony Upper East Siders are wont to do: Wear fine clothing, get chauffeured around by their drivers, and talk incessantly about the ritzy private school their kids attend. It might sound boring but throw in a sexy stranger from Harlem and a dash of murder and voila: A perfect recipe for a bingeable show. And the visual appeal doesn’t end with the good-looking folks in the show or their finery. The real killer here is the real estate.

[Editor's note: When a movie or TV show is set in New York City—and if the people making it are savvy—real estate becomes part of the story itself. In Reel Estate, Brick Underground reality checks the NYC real estate depicted on screen].

The Frasers live in a two-level townhouse right across the street from Central Park on East 63rd Street, in the land of Goldendoodles. Fun fact: The show was filmed inside an actual on-the-market townhouse on Fifth Avenue, according to Architectural Digest. In fact, the neighborhood and real estate looks so convincing because most of the show was filmed in NYC and surrounding areas. The homes featured were even furnished with items from stores actual rich New Yorkers would shop in. To wit: Grace's living room sofa was purchased from Arhaus and reupholstered in an orange mohair from George Smith.

Their son’s walk to Reardon, an exclusive UES prep school (Think: Spence) is scenic to say the least. Most of his classmates live in equally majestic homes. When Grace goes to a fundraising committee meeting for the school’s upcoming auction, we see her and her fellow moms congregate in a light-filled, gold and marble filled manse, complete with wood paneling and fine art. For a second, one might think they were in the Met.

As if being in such amazing real estate wasn’t enough, the talk quickly turns to other, even better real estate. Turns out the auction will be held at an even fancier manse owned by friends who are kindly donating the space for the event. This glass castle sits high atop a luxury building overlooking the park like a twinkling star. The women gossip about how big their friend Suki’s closet is and about the two David Hockneys hanging in her foyer. It makes sense they are obsessed with aesthetics, one of the items to be auctioned off is a cosmetic surgery, after all. 

What further highlights all of this over-the-top luxury is its juxtaposition with the subplot of Elena whose son is on scholarship at Reardon. Elena, a struggling artist, lives in a cramped apartment in a walkup building in Harlem. A natural beauty among the plastic surgery set, she stands out. She wears sweats and a tee while the other moms are in decked out in fancy dresses and high heels before noon. Her son usually rides the school bus. She goes nude in her gym's locker room while all other women remain clothed—mostly in expensive Lululemon workout gear. She takes the subway. 

She bugs the other mothers even when she’s not doing anything at all, just sitting leisurely outside her son’s school on a bench—staring at nothing. This is heretical to the rich moms. One comments that it is unnatural to not appear busy during the day in NYC. They wonder how she didn’t seem to get this memo. She doesn’t even have a nanny. How suspect! 

The Frasers try to be down to earth, or at least recognize their privilege. Not only can they easily afford all their luxuries with their high-paying careers, but Grace’s father, Franklin, is old money and doles it out accordingly. Still, Grace—in her kitchen easily the size of most NYC apartments—muses that maybe they should move somewhere less showy like Schenectady, saying she’s heard nice things about it. To which her husband quips, “It sounds horrible, even phonetically.” 

This tale of two neighborhoods becomes even more pronounced when a single glass of tap water gets auctioned off for $1,000—as a gag. See, the rich do have a sense of humor! Sadly, this isn’t the most shocking thing that transpires. Later that evening, after cornering Grace in the bathroom, Elena, teary-eyed, kisses Grace goodbye on the mouth and then makes a beeline out of the event, claiming she has to race home to pump. (She has a newborn at home.) Grace, ever the altruist, offers her driver but Elena says the subway will be faster. One suspects Grace doesn’t even own a MetroCard. The next morning Elena is found murdered in her studio. 

The UES ladies initially chalk it up to a random crime—it is Harlem, after all—or the husband. Quickly the cops do circle in on a husband, Grace’s. Turns out there is lots of smoke and mirrors in these glossy homes, ones that can’t be so easily tidied by the housekeeper.

Grace can’t get in touch with Jonathan, believing him to be at an oncology conference, which turns out to have been a lie. It seems he has a connection to Elena that sends Grace spiraling.

When faced with a tragedy, real estate, once again, saves the day. Grace flees to her summer home in the North Fork. And not shockingly, Jonathan goes exactly where any rich dude on the lam would go: the summer house! (Filmed in an actual Long Island beach house with the owner’s furnishings, accordingly to Architectural Digest.) Makes sense for a couple with their resources to choose a less showy summer places away from the South Fork. While the address given—361 Beachway Dr.– is fictional, the beachfront property appears to be a prime North Fork, where homes range in price from around $1.7 million to $3.7 million. The two meet cute, sort of. The cops are alerted as Jonathan stands on the beach, proclaiming his innocence to Grace. 

While the season is just six episodes, viewers probably won’t have to wait too long to find out "whodunit." But after so much scandal, the real question in this series is: “When will that townhome be on the market and for how much?” One can surmise after all this upheaval the Frasers may need to liquidate quickly (defense attorneys don’t come cheap) and may indeed find themselves exiled to Schenectady, after all; phonetics be damned.


Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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