Hulu‘s original miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers has all the right ingredients. The show, which premieres on the streaming platform Aug. 18, is an adaptation of not just a best-selling novel but a best-selling Liane Moriarty novel. That automatically invites comparisons to HBO’s crowd-pleasing Moriarty adaptation Big Little Lies.
And its source material isn’t the only DNA the show shares with other twisty, prestige-adjacent, thriller-adjacent, limited-run series. Its list of executive producers, like Big Little Lies, includes David E. Kelley and Nicole Kidman, both of whom also adapted last winter’s soapy HBO miniseries The Undoing.
Aesthetically, Nine Perfect Strangers takes a page from the Kelley cinematic universe as well. The show’s opening credits are overlaid on a psychedelic nature montage set to a woozy, minor-key pop cover that sounds like it could have been sung by Kidman herself. The setting is a tony health and wellness resort populated by rich, beautiful people with one to two traumatic backstories each. And these rich, beautiful characters are played by a hodgepodge of actors you’ve seen before in similar fare, from BLL/The Undoing alum Kidman to Little Fires Everywhere alum Tiffany Boone and Gilmore Girls alum Melissa McCarthy. The only ingredient missing from the winning drama miniseries recipe is Reese Witherspoon, whose production company has carved a niche for book-to-television adaptations (Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, the forthcoming Daisy Jones & The Six).
Unfortunately for fans of Moriarty or of any of the show’s aforementioned antecedents, combining all the right ingredients does not a repast make. The resulting mixture is essentially a “premium streaming content” Mad Libs with shaggy pacing that curdles initial intrigue into mostly confusion. Too many cooks in the kitchen.
This time around, Kidman plays manic pixie nightmare Masha, the founder of boutique health resort Tranquillum House who’s got a sadistic streak and a villainous Russian accent that sounds like it was workshopped during the Cold War. Tranquillum seems closer to tranquilizer than tranquility, and that’s the point. In fiction, the plot is the crucible through which characters endure hardship and struggle, emerging changed on the other side. Tranquillum’s 10-day retreat is that crucible made literal, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Each character’s personal demon must be excised during the stay, through the allegedly therapeutic protocol designed by Masha. The treatment plan operates under a “the burn says it’s working” mentality, conflating suffering with healing. I’m not sure if this is meant to be a critique of wellness culture and the asymptotic finish line of self-improvement, a critique of the poor rich people who pay money to have their traumas cauterized, or a critique of plot mechanics themselves.
Or maybe it’s not a critique at all, but a character study. Masha creepily “curates” attendees at her resort, much like the mysterious host in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And she’s assembled quite the crew. I spent the entirety of the first episode waiting for each of the titular nine strangers to succumb to Christie-style deaths, but no dice.
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At the center of the plot is a mystery, but like Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers doesn’t really tell you what it is. And unlike Big Little Lies, whose nuanced characters felt fresh and real, I couldn’t make myself care very much about solving it. I was able to deduce that something was afoot based solely on the liberal use of slow-panning establishing shots and the occasional knowing exchange of sustained eye contact between Masha’s henchmen. But even after several episodes, the central question driving the series seems to merely be “What trauma led these people to a self-improvement resort?” (And will they self-improve by the end of their stay?) There’s also the question of why everyone is acting so weird, but by the time it’s addressed I’ve already accepted the weirdness as the price of entry to the world of the show.
And there’s something fishy going on with Masha herself — a near-death experience; intrusive memories of a little girl on a bike; mysterious, threatening text messages… But her character is so diabolically goofy, I’m hesitant to invest much energy in worrying about it. When it’s unclear whether you’re even asking the right questions, it’s hard to follow bread crumbs of intrigue that could just as likely dead-end.
Tonally, Nine Perfect Strangers is all over the place, a melting pot of comedy, romance, magical realism, horror and suspense. Throughout their stay at Tranquillum, the nine strangers flit through the woods like Hermia and Lysander. They writhe and scream like patients under Nurse Ratched’s care. They indulge in desperate credulity like characters in a NXIVM cult docuseries. They bicker and attack each other, they fall in love, they hallucinate, they share deep, dark secrets, they compete in a potato sack race.
The characters’ reasons for attending the resort range from the tragic to the mundane. There’s the couple grappling with the recent death of their son. Then there’s the couple grappling with the pressures of… social media? McCarthy plays novelist Frances, the closest thing to an audience analogue. Her personal demon is the weirdest, involving a catfishing scam. Each character’s psychological flaw is a spoke extending from the self-improvement wheel hub, and each spoke seems to take the show in a different direction. Frances splits the difference with a veneer of sarcasm that’s both funny and sad. (“I’m not meditating, just despondently staring into the gaping void,” she says.)
The photography and set design are beautiful, and many of the performances are moving — Bobby Canavale’s wounded ex-athlete and Michael Shannon’s grieving father are particularly poignant. But the shapelessness of the story and the vagueness of its mysteries give the sense this miniseries was constructed by some sort of algorithm. The cast’s clamorous collection of grief, betrayal, commitment phobia, loneliness and professional failure creates a screenwriting challenge that Kelley and team can’t quite meet. Perhaps nine perfect strangers is just too many to get to know in a limited run.
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