Nicole Kidman Guides ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ Into an Alluring Getaway Too Cryptic to Fully Comprehend
Even more than movies, Peak TV is attempting to tap into the very mood of the times. In America we’re lonely and privileged, seeking relief in everything from entertainment to self-help options. Hulu’s “Nine Perfect Strangers” is another series about longing Americans going on a getaway that is meant to symbolize… something. Eight episodes long and based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, this limited series by TV maverick David E. Kelley loves to show a lot, but say quite little. It is essentially a crammed set of character profiles, where the personalities are more intriguing than the plot. Nicole Kidman gets to preside over it all with a fake Russian accent and the vibes of a wellness mystic.
The setting is the Tranquillum House, a wellness resort somewhere in the woodsy parts of California. The roster of characters we as the audience will live with in this locale are as follows: High school teacher Napoleon Marconi (Michael Shannon) is here with wife Heather (Asher Keddie) and teenage daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten). The Marconis are still processing the suicide of their son. Frances (Melissa McCarthy) is the author of quick-consumption bestsellers who was recently manipulated by a would-be lover. Carmel (Regina Hall) is a single mother who harbors a deep rage after her husband ran off with a younger woman. Jessica (Samara Weaving) is an influencer married to Ben (Melvin Gregg), who is wealthy for unclear reasons. Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is a grump who keeps his background closely guarded. The same can be said of the cynical Lars (Luke Evans), who can’t seem to quite explain why he needs a wellness retreat. The guru head of Tranquillum is Masha (Kidman), who was once a powerful businesswoman who survived a parking lot attack and shooting. She hopes to guide the group into a series of exercises and practices that will open them up to facing their issues and overcome them. That seems to be the idea, anyway. There might be ulterior motives to the cryptic philosophy Masha espouses.
The first and immediate comparison “Nine Perfect Strangers” will have to endure is with HBO’s “The White Lotus,” which concludes its first season mere days before this one premieres. Mike White’s acclaimed series was a bold, acidic commentary on class in America and its very attitudes. The Hawaiian resort where it takes place turns into a microcosm of America’s elites, all financially stable but doomed by their own whims, scars and impulses. It knows what it’s about. By comparison, Kelley’s take on Moriarty’s novel feels like it wants to say twenty different things at the same time. Like White’s show this one is an ensemble. A key difference is that there’s more of a collectivized style to the story. All the guests are specifically here because of what Masha seems to offer. The opening theme song, “Strange Effect,” by Unloved, establishes the hallucinatory mood of what will follow.
For a show with eight chapters, “Nine Perfect Strangers” tends to meander. It sustains a leisurely pace punctuated by flashes of mystery. We get to know everyone as Masha’s resort operators, Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), become their chief caretakers, like high-end camp counselors. They serve everyone healthy fruit smoothies in the morning and then introduce them to the day’s activity. It might be potato-sack racing, skinny-dipping into a nearby lake or learning to live off the land. It’s all meant to somehow “open up” one’s inner self. Everyone’s layers begin to peel off. Napoleon and Heather haven’t had sex in years, Jessica and Ben are also having marital tension, and Tony confesses he was once a famous football player whose career ended with a shattered knee. Masha gets one-on-one time with everyone too, using her hypnotic voice and serene personality to probe their thoughts.
Because the cast is so strong, they bring some poignancy to these roles. Regina Hall is empathetic as the kind woman with a hidden, boiling temper, who admits she’d like to punch beautiful Jessica, because she embodies everything her husband left her for. Melvin Gregg brings a convincing lack of ego to Ben, who tells the other men the surprisingly mundane form in which he acquired wealth. Melissa McCarthy’s Frances and Bobby Cannavale’s Tony are closer to what we expect from these two, and they make them strong-willed and also hilarious. Samara Weaving, who has proven she can do bloody action in films like “Ready or Not,” makes Jessica an empathetic, warmhearted character. She looks like the typical, flashy influencers one sees around Los Angeles all the time, but it’s all a mask for profound insecurities. Luke Evans also gives depth to Lars, who begins the show as a troll, but then reveals his past as a young man struggling with the rejection of his gay identity by his father.
These are all intriguing personalities. Yet Kelley and his writing and directing team can’t find a definitive lens to frame what the story is meant to convey about them. So instead the story turns to some easy plot mechanics. Masha, who remains distant and archaic for most of the episodes, is receiving anonymous death threats in her text messages. It truly is hard for us to guess because little to nothing is built of her character. The guests all soon learn there’s more than just fruit in their smoothies. By experimenting with drugs in her treatment, Masha is using hallucinatory possibilities for the group to face their inner fears. This show doesn’t necessarily get very trippy, it’s more of a gimmick so someone like Tony can have manic episodes by the pool for comic relief, although Zoe does have a very poignant storyline that develops when the drugs invoke visions of her dead brother. Another storyline involves Yao and Delilah being a couple, but Masha has a way of getting in-between them, not least when she casually sleeps with Yao.
The performances, the sun-kissed cinematography, and the sense of place are well-executed. But it can feel too much like reaching for empty air. Is “Nine Perfect Strangers” a critique of wellness culture? Or are all of these characters mere representations of the anxieties and emotional turmoil of the modern middle class American? Because the episodes consist more of moments than upfront satire, as viewers we can be left in limbo. Nicole Kidman has mastered playing mysterious, with a hint of power, even if her accent brings flashbacks to Angelina Jolie’s famously odd accent in “Alexander.” Yet her Masha is as vague as the show itself. She becomes a caricature of the typical idea of a wellness guru, but what she wants, why she’s doing what she’s doing remains frustratingly vague six episodes in. Kelley has crafted a fascinating crowd. Why we’re attending this TV getaway is the question he refuses to answer.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” begins streaming Aug. 18 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Hulu.