Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Nine Perfect Strangers, the Nicole Kidman-led limited series based on the book by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty.
Depending on whom you ask, alternative medicine is either the secret answer to all that ails us or a multi-billion dollar scam. And now the divisive industry provides the perfect backdrop for Nine Perfect Strangers, the latest David E. Kelley show based on a book by Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies).
The Hulu Original limited series takes place at an upscale wellness center called Tranquillum House, run by the mysterious and powerful Masha (Nicole Kidman). She has hand-picked a group of people to join her on a ten-day retreat that will include acupuncture, primal screaming in a sauna, and something called “forest bathing.”
From the start, there is clearly more to retreat than meets the eye. Masha is intense, and Kidman plays her as a curious presence who is at once ethereal and intimidating. Scenes in Nine Perfect Strangers are sometimes intercut with ominously slowed-down shots of smoothies being blended — a healthy routine corrupted by horror-movie editing.
The strangers themselves are the best part of this unpredictable series. One of them, Frances (Melissa McCarthy), is a famed novelist going through a period of bitterness and self-doubt. Then there’s Carmel (Regina Hall), a dowdy, seemingly sweet-as-sugar mom looking for transformation.
The Marconi family, headed by Napoleon (Michael Shannon), is struggling to cope with a tremendous loss. And Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is a charming asshole who quickly has trouble with the wellness center rules. A couple with relationship issues (Samara Weaving and Melvin Gregg) and a shit-stirring man with ulterior motives (Luke Evans) round out the group.
Early episodes lead viewers to believe that this ensemble is a powder keg waiting to explode. Yet as the series unfolds, there is little heat between them. Unlike this summer’s other ominous series set at a resort — Mike White’s tremendous satire The White Lotus — with this show, it’s tough to believe these perfect strangers would ever be capable of doing each other any purposeful harm.
Nine Perfect Strangers first presents itself as being reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel And Then There Were None — a not-so-random gathering of strangers with secrets and hidden traumas. Soon, though, the series settles into more traditional drama territory.
The fantastic cast and intriguing, if occasionally lethargic plot ensure that Nine Perfect Strangers is never less than entertaining. Despite Masha’s soapy personal history and those mysterious smoothies, the series mostly veers away from the sensational. Instead, it focuses on the seekers, and on the difficulty of soul-searching in the face of grief, insecurity, inadequacy, and rage.
The show, which is entirely directed by Jonathan Levine (Long Shot) doesn’t seem to be arriving at any particular salient point, but it’s impossible not to click play on each new episode just to watch it as a showcase for the actors.
Shannon is a standout as Napoleon Marconi, a chipper, rule-following father and husband who is quickly thrown off by Masha’s emotionally driven tactics. He’s funny in a corny way, as when he continuously mentions the nice family discount Masha gave him. At one point, he gives a rambling speech about goats and the bible that detours into a surprisingly devastating memory.
In another moment, he dances in high-waisted underwear while singing “You’re The One That I Want,” a moment of joyous abandon amidst an increasingly tense trip. Shannon has long since been an actor who’s game for anything. His ability to embody both an edge of danger and a core of dorky earnestness makes him perfect for this shifting cipher of a series.
Manny Jacinto is another actor in Nine Perfect Strangers likely to keep viewers hooked. Best known for his role as Jason on The Good Place, he gets to branch out here with a role as Masha’s wellness consultant and sometimes paramour, Yao. He’s a quiet, even-keeled presence who counters Masha’s intensity and the passion of his other co-worker and lover, Delilah (Tiffany Boone).
As the Tranquillum House guests work through their issues, behind-the-scenes confrontations between Masha, Yao, and Delilah ratchet up the tension and hint that all is far from well in this perfectly cultivated paradise.
As a novel, Nine Perfect Strangers is neither Moriarty’s best book nor her most successful. The adaptation will likely also come to occupy a middle space within the currently trending upper-class mystery subgenre. The series is not nearly as emotionally searing and heart-pounding as Big Little Lies, but it’s leagues better than Kidman’s other recent mystery adaptation, The Undoing.
It irons out some of the novel’s weak spots with a few key tweaks and revisions. This results in more well-rounded characters and writing choices that could lead to a more satisfying ending. Nine Perfect Strangers is neither groundbreaking nor especially resonant, but with an excellent cast carrying an intriguing story, the series still adds up to time well-spent.
Nine Perfect Strangers begins streaming on Hulu on August 18th.