Vacations are supposed to recharge us, to transform us from the exhausted husks who wheeled our bags into the hotel lobby into more relaxed, possibly even more enlightened human beings.
That’s what the guests at Tranquillum House, the wellness resort at the center of Nine Perfect Strangers, hope will happen to them when they arrive at this seemingly idyllic luxury cure-all compound. They want to become better versions of themselves and, while skeptical, believe there’s a chance that Tranquillum’s guru, a celestial enigma of a woman named Masha (Nicole Kidman), can help them get there. Whether or not you’ve read the Liane Moriarty novel that inspired this new Hulu limited series, you can probably already guess that Masha has some surprisingly unorthodox ideas about treatment as well as some personal secrets, that the Tranquillum guests come with both literal and emotional baggage as well as their own personal secrets, and that many of these secrets will be slowly revealed in an environment that grows tense as often as it enables healing.
With that provocative premise, the prolific David E. Kelley as showrunner, and a cast packed with acclaimed actors — Kidman is joined by, among others, Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, Regina Hall, and Michael Shannon — Nine Perfect Strangers arrives with all its indicator lights signaling that it could be the next must-see limited series. But it’s not, not quite. It’s certainly watchable — with that ensemble and such an alluring setting (it takes place in California but was filmed in bucolic Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia), watchability is practically guaranteed. But somehow the show manages to feel too contrived and too thinly conceived at the same time.
It doesn’t help Nine Perfect Strangers that it’s debuting three days after the finale of Mike White’s The White Lotus, a limited series that’s also about self-involved rich people at a resort but that develops its characters with more nuance, has a stronger command of tone, and benefits from a clearer, singular point of view. As scripted by a small group of writers that includes Kelley and Jonathan Levine, who directs all eight episodes, Nine Perfect Strangers comes across by comparison as a work of television that’s still in search of its identity.
The first episode, one of three that drop on Wednesday to be followed by a weekly episode-by-episode rollout, introduces all of the (mostly) wealthy visitors as they arrive at Tranquillum House. There’s Frances (McCarthy), a blunt best-selling author struggling with the end of a recent personal relationship and the news that her publisher has dropped her upcoming book; Tony (Cannavale), an addict who immediately becomes Frances’s nemesis; Carmel (Hall), a single mom whose gentleness masks some serious anger issues; social influencer Jessica (Samara Weaving) and conspicuous consumer Ben (Melvin Gregg), who are aiming to work on their fractured marriage; Napoleon Marconi (Shannon), his wife, Heather (Australian actress Asher Keddie), and their daughter, Zoe (Grace Van Patten), who are grieving the loss of the fourth Marconi, Zoe’s twin brother, Zach, and staying at Tranquillum at a discounted rate; and the most openly cynical of the bunch, Lars (Luke Evans), who may have ulterior motives for seeking treatment.
As their stays unfold, each of the guests participates in an array of activities designed to open their minds and help them face their issues, from lying in open graves to engaging in potato-sack races. They’re regularly treated to smoothies custom-designed for each of them based on their medical profiles … or so they are told. They also receive coveted one-on-one time with Masha, who carries herself with the serenity of a person with great wisdom, or at least a person who fervently believes she knows everything.
Kidman is uniquely suited to radiating the guru’s unearthly kind of serenity, emphasized — or perhaps overemphasized — by Masha’s flowing blonde hair, which is presumably rinsed with shampoo that contains aloe, flecks of pulverized healing crystals, and natural prestige-TV extracts. Masha is a magnetic, slippery figure whose motivations and ethics are still vague to viewers even after watching the six episodes provided to critics. That, not to mention a liberal interpretation of Masha’s accent — during a recent session of the virtual Television Critics Association press tour, Kidman said Masha speaks seven languages, including Russian — allows the actress to remain unbound in her choices.
The problem is that the show is so determined to maintain some amount of mystery around Masha that she lacks specificity. As written, she seems less like a human and more like a construct created to push the buttons of her guests and the plot points dictated by the narrative. This is the third time Kidman has collaborated with Kelley — they worked together on Big Little Lies and The Undoing — and this is her least convincing performance of those three. But it’s also the least convincing series Kelley has executive-produced alongside Kidman.
On the list of things viewers seem to relish in their premium-cable and streaming series, this show ticks a lot of boxes. Cultlike intrigue: check. Sexual entanglements: check. (Masha has an unusual relationship with each of her two closest assistants, Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), who happen to be romantically involved.) The possibility that someone could be murdered: check, thanks to a story line in which an anonymous stalker keeps threatening Masha’s life.
Like a semi-satisfying beach read, Nine Perfect Strangers keeps you curious enough to want to know what happens next. Its actors are clearly doing their damnedest to plumb some depths in a mostly shallow pool. Both Cannavale, who wrings relatability out of a guy who initially seems like a class-A jerk, and Shannon, who adorns Napoleon with an aggressive optimism that is both heartbreaking and deeply cringey, are standouts. But you expect a series with this much talent to actually have something to say. And Nine Perfect Strangers never does.
At times, it seems as if it might be a send-up of wellness fads, but it’s too heartfelt for that. It’s not consistent enough as a satire of the wealthy and neurotic to be defined as such. The stakes are never high enough to make the show an effective thriller or a meaningful drama. Nine Perfect Strangers is to its audience kind of like Tranquillum House is to the group of troubled men and women who decide to stay there: a place that sounds like a great investment on paper but feels confusing and not quite what you expected once you arrive.