March 3, 2021

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If You Ask Me: Why I Spent the Pandemic with Nicole, Hugh, and Kaley

5 min read

For many years, Libby Gelman-Waxner, an assistant buyer in juniors’ activewear, moonlighted for Premiere magazine and Entertainment Weekly as the world’s most beloved and irresponsible movie critic. Now she’s been coaxed out of retirement to make her mark in online criticism, at the urging of her close personal friend, the playwright and New Yorker contributor Paul Rudnick.

I’ve been getting through the COVID-19 crisis with the help of my most crucial support system: shows about gorgeous, well-dressed, mostly rich people running around a pre-pandemic New York, murdering each other and using car services. “The Undoing,” on HBO Max, is pretty much Libby Gelman-Waxner bliss—it stars Nicole Kidman as an Upper East Side heiress and therapist, with Hugh Grant as her handsome pediatric-surgeon husband, who’s also an admitted adulterer and suspected sociopath. If I could swipe right on a couple and their many homes, Nicole and Hugh would be my perfect match, and I’d be delighted to take the rap for them, or at least vacuum their shingled Hamptons beachfront place, off season.

Nicole has a frenzied cascade of iodine-red curls, and strides through the city in a long, acid-green velvet coat and enough scarves for a magic act—this look says, “I got my Ph.D. at Bergdorf’s.” Nicole seems to have only two patients: a gay couple who I wish began each session by saying, “Loving the hair and the coat; let’s talk about the boots.” Nicole gets to suffer and question her life, as only she can, with meaningful stares, flawless skin, and an occasional American accent. Her dad is Donald Sutherland, a zillionaire who’s usually found in a museum, studying some wall-filling Renaissance oil painting as if he’s about to tell the security guard, “Wrap it up and put it in a cab for me.” Nicole and Donald play duets on the piano in Donald’s swanky apartment, and Donald pays for whatever Nicole needs, after which she centers herself by taking long walks—I’m telling you, it’s like I have a twin.

Hugh’s been cheating with a hot, frequently naked, much younger artist, who turns up bludgeoned to death. Hugh is so fabulous at being both incredibly charming and a devoted physician that I told myself, Hugh’s hair isn’t guilty of anything. Nicole and Hugh are fantasy versions of me and my orthodontist-husband, Josh, if we both lost weight and attended private-school fund-raisers in formal wear before making passionate love on bedding so sumptuous the sex becomes a three-way with a pillow sham. When Hugh and Nicole are forced to squeeze their way through a gantlet of courthouse paparazzi, it’s as if they were strolling the red carpet at the Golden Globes; they ooze so much stressed-out glamour that I expected the bailiff to ask who they were wearing. The whole show is sleek and shiny—very “CSI: Carrie Bradshaw.” Even the child actors are styled and intense, and emote as if they’re being interviewed about upcoming projects. The plot of “The Undoing” doesn’t really matter; it’s primarily an excuse for Nicole to take the witness stand and, under pressure, shift her gaze slightly, as I swooned and wondered if, someday, I could borrow her life, because being stricken gives her a glow.

“The Flight Attendant,” also on HBO Max, is even giddier fun, starring Kaley Cuoco in the title role, and she gives a real movie star’s performance. I always enjoyed her on “The Big Bang Theory,” but here she rules the screen, as if she couldn’t wait to show what she’s capable of. She’s playing Cassie, who’s a blackout drunk, but her alcoholism thankfully never interferes with her parade of gloriously messy tendrils and topknots, or her wardrobe of chicly oversized coats and skimpy T-shirts. Best of all, her drinking allows for frequent scenes with Michiel Huisman, as the most stunningly seductive dead guy imaginable. After a hookup, Kaley awakes beside Michiel’s bloody corpse—but that’s only the beginning of their deeply romantic affair, kind of like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in a morgue. Michiel is so tall and dreamy that he manages the impossible: he’s a deceased hunk who can pull off white pants.

The show follows Kaley’s efforts to solve the case of Michiel’s murder, escape the many scary, bad people who are pursuing her, hug Zosia Mamet (her best friend and attorney), and have tons of inebriated sex with additional hot, lanky dudes. This is the sort of series where almost every guy is seen bare-assed in the shower, which means HBO has been taking my texts seriously. Even the F.B.I. agents are knockouts, as if all federal agencies retained CrossFit trainers and personal shoppers. Kaley races all over Manhattan, with occasional flights to Rome and Bangkok, and it’s so great to see being a flight attendant treated as an exciting, sophisticated profession again, as well as the best means of meeting cute guys on every continent. The only thing the show lacks is Kaley going into therapy with Nicole, so they can compare slouchy shoulder bags.

It’s invigorating to view New York City at its most dazzling, as a backdrop for international assassins with stylish trench coats, abs, and iPhones—as if they’re issued these items by the supervillains who hire them. Everything about this series shouldn’t work, including its sepia-tinted childhood traumas, the constant use of split screens, and the focus on a character who keeps making the most annoying choices. But, thanks to Kaley and skillful direction, I couldn’t get enough. And, while I’ll always salute front-line workers and everyone else who’s helping the world survive such hideous times, we shouldn’t forget the lithe and perfectly lit stars who make our locked-down evenings truly binge-worthy. Nicole, Hugh, and Kaley provide Hollywood star power even as movie theatres remain closed—they’re doing their part. England and Scandinavia have monopolized the police procedurals on Netflix, where everyone wears down-filled parkas and the detectives come equipped with bitter ex-wives and estranged children. And, while this can be satisfying, it’s not Kaley swinging through a bar and smooching the waitstaff en route to breaking into a Hudson Yards penthouse and unearthing a secret thumb drive, if you ask me.

Libby Gelman-Waxner


2021-01-20 07:00:00


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