Nine Perfect Strangers
The wellness-industrial complex is a multiarmed behemoth. Resorts, crystals, cleanses, yoga, gazing inward to better focus your gaze outward — could aspects of this really help people? Sure. Does a lot of it line the pockets of snake-oil peddlers who use “self-help” as a get-rich-quick scheme? Of course. What is the likelihood that fruit and hikes are really all you need to work through pain, regret, trauma, addiction, and self-hatred? Probably very slim! And yet here we are in Nine Perfect Strangers being guided toward “transformation” by Masha Dmitrichenko, a wellness-resort host played by Nicole Kidman (in Galadriel cosplay and a Cold War–era Bond-villain accent). “Life is suffering until you die,” Masha says. Wouldn’t you rather be reborn?
Nine Perfect Strangers is the latest novel by Liane Moriarty to be adapted for TV, once again with David E. Kelley at the helm (alongside co-creator John-Henry Butterworth) and Kidman in a starring role in their third collaboration together after Big Little Lies and The Undoing. Of course, another series about mostly rich, mostly unhappy people would draw Kelley’s attention, but in an interesting twist, the season-long director of Nine Perfect Strangers is Jonathan Levine, whose previous credits are mostly comedies: 50/50, Warm Bodies, The Night Before, Long Shot. What will Levine bring to this?
If the series premiere, “Random Acts of Mayhem,” is any indication of the next seven episodes, Levine’s main stylistic flourish will be unsettling close-ups — blender blades and smoothie ingredients, blood being extracted from arms into test tubes, the Matrix-green glow of Masha’s ever-watchful computer monitors. As a way to build tension in the unsettling panopticon vibe of the resort, Tranquillum, that tactic lends itself to jarring, intermittent impact. And a menagerie of split-second flashbacks, now a requisite component of Kelley’s storytelling style after their prolific use in Big Little Lies and The Undoing, provides characters in this premiere with a hop backward into the past.
Even with all that, doesn’t “Random Acts of Mayhem” start a little slowly? Maybe a dozen or so guests are too many to introduce in 44 minutes. Maybe the episode spends a bit too much time on everyone wandering around the resort oohing and aahing over how beautiful everything is. (I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed that the grand old Tranquillum House as described in Moriarty’s novel has been replaced here with another bland, tech-style mansion straight out of an Alex Garland production, à la Ex Machina or Devs.) Or maybe the mystery of Masha is amped up so much by the various guests and the Tranquillum staff that once Kidman finally arrives, it’s a little bit anticlimactic. Shooting her all-white-outfitted form against a halo of light is smartly intentional, yes, and her performance is finely calibrated, yes, and that no-teeth smile is efficiently unsettling, yes! But Nine Perfect Strangers is already hinting at a kind of insidious menace coming from this place — those forced breakfast smoothies, the omnipresent cameras — that I’m not sure Kidman’s Masha yet communicates.
A few of the other characters are similarly nebulous, and between their opacity and Masha’s, Nine Perfect Strangers starts off a little imbalanced. What could the smug, asshole-ish Lars (Luke Evans) ever want to change about himself? How much vaguer could Jessica (Samara Weaving) be about the problems she senses in her marriage to Ben (Melvin Gregg)? I don’t doubt that people entering into a situation like this would be cagey or guarded. As a show, however, Nine Perfect Strangers has to sketch these characters distinctly enough for us to care, and I’m not all in on everyone yet — except for Manny Jacinto’s mustache. I am thoroughly enthralled by that.
“Random Acts of Mayhem” begins with nine people making their way to the very remote, very gorgeous Tranquillum property nestled along the California coastline. For ten days, these people will work on themselves, although their motivations for transformation vary. First up is the Marconi family: talkative husband and father Napoleon (Michael Shannon, delightful), more laconic wife and mother Heather (Asher Keddie), and somewhat detached daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten). The working-class family made it into the thousands-of-dollars-a-day resort thanks to a special discount from Masha, and Leon can’t stop gushing about it: “What a socially progressive thing to do!” Is his singing “We got the golden ticket” a little too much? Yes. But all the other guests are a little too much too.
Aspiring Instagram influencer Jessica and her husband, Ben, have their status reflected in her Fendi tracksuit and his bright-yellow Lamborghini. They’re rich, young, and hot but clearly not on the same wavelength. While Jessica seems excited for their “transformation retreat,” Ben can’t quite grasp the point: “If we keep getting better, eventually we’ll be perfect, right? Then what?” Similarly incredulous is author Frances (Melissa McCarthy), who is hoping her stay at Tranquillum will consist of “some healing, massage, maybe some gentle fasting”; she’s smarting from her recent experience with a “horrendous grifter man” and from being dropped by her publisher. She makes an immediate enemy out of Tony (Bobby Cannavale), the man who pulls over when he sees Frances screaming on the side of the road, assumes she’s “having some kind of mental-breakdown episode,” dares to talk to her about hormone-replacement therapy (!!!), and finally departs with “I can see now that you’re a tragic person. Have a good day.” Of course, they’re going to the same place and don’t know it yet! And a similar friction develops between the sardonic, dismissive Lars and the overly cutesy, clearly hiding-something Carmel (Regina Hall); the former speaks of Masha with a kind of condescension, the latter with a sort of fascination.
How is this group going to tolerate one another over ten days? Tranquillum’s personal wellness consultants, in particular leaders Yao (Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), have their work cut out for them. Everyone struggles against handing over their cell phones and the blood draws Masha and her team insist upon. Frances insults Carmel for being a mother: “I do something for a living, so I don’t do kids.” Jessica takes offense to Carmel’s saying she already looks perfect. Tony uses an ancient tree as a urinal. Heather barely interacts with any of the other guests and refers bitterly to “this weekend, of all weekends” — what’s special for the Marconis about this time of year? Lars tries to reach an ex on a smuggled smart watch and is spied upon by Zoe. Leon unknowingly crashes Jessica’s attempt at rekindling some romance with Ben. “The vibe seems a little charged, right?” Delilah asks co-worker and boyfriend Yao, but he is loyal to Masha in a way that perhaps Delilah isn’t. “Masha knows what she’s doing,” Yao insists, but what is that, exactly?
Masha chose these nine people to be there together. She insists that, after her treatments, they’ll “feel happier, healthier, lighter, freer,” and she has no qualms about going through her guests’ luggage and confiscating what she thinks are their toxins and vices. Kidman’s Russian accent isn’t the best, but her delivery here — clipped, brusque, commanding — helps sell Masha as someone who draws people in, holds them close, and releases them just as quickly as she attracts them. In her previous life, she reached the highest levels of corporate success and then died after being shot in a parking garage; Yao (an EMT at the time) helped bring her back. “Tragedy can be a blessing,” Masha intones, but maybe her methods won’t work for everyone. Who really wants to be told that suffering is the only way to self-fulfillment? By the end of the first meeting, Zoe flees; Heather tries to attack Masha; Tony, Lars, and Frances are all irritated by having their bags searched; and Jessica and Ben look a little shell-shocked. “I mean to fuck with all of you,” Masha says, and although “Random Acts of Mayhem” is a slow-moving episode, that moment lands. Can you imagine paying for this? I cannot.
Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?
• Unlike in The Undoing, that’s not Kidman singing during the trippy, Annihilation-like opening credits of Nine Perfect Strangers. The droning cover of the decades-old pop song “This Strange Effect” is by Belgian alternative group Hooverphonic.
• In a strange confluence of location switching, the novel Nine Perfect Strangers is set outside Sydney, Australia. The show moved the setting to Cabrillo, California, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, the series was filmed in Byron Bay, Australia, standing in for California. I simply do not understand why they didn’t just keep the location as Australia and lean into the “Masha is secretive and in high demand, and we all traveled far away to be healed by her” narrative?
• This is your reminder that Cannavale is married to Rose Byrne and that Byrne and McCarthy co-starred in the perfect Spy together. We live in a time when there is still not a Spy 2, and that’s just wrong.
• Who’s texting Lars, “You’re a fucking narcissist”? (Ahem: That analysis seems correct.)
• Related: Who shot Masha?
• “What if there’s a murderer or a bear?” Rian Johnson, there’s your idea for Knives Out 3!
• About the line “We don’t believe in random here”: There’s definitely some kind of extra ingredient going into those smoothies, right?