This Nine Perfect Strangers review contains no spoilers.
Nine Perfect Strangers is truly a story about how, if you look like Nicole Kidman, you can get people to do anything you want them to do. In the upcoming Hulu series, Kidman is Masha, an enigmatic, ethereal woman who runs Tranquillum, a super secretive wellness retreat set in a swoon-worthy mansion made of glass and earth elements. As the guests arrive and settle in, they realize that they’re in for more than they’d bargained for.
The nine perfect strangers attending the resort are a mishmash of personalities. As they all approach Tranquillum, we’re treated to mini character studies. Melissa McCarthy brings her incomparable talent to the role of Frances, a romance novelist whose life seems to be falling apart. The Marconi family (Michael Shannon, Asher Keddie, and Grace Van Patten) has been given a discount on the bill for some mysterious reason, and they’re looking forward to a chance to relax and regroup. Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving) are a smokin’ hot young couple looking to reconnect, Carmel (Regina Hall) is a high-strung woman who insists that she’s headed to the resort for weight loss, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is a cantankerous dude perpetually clad in sweats, and Lars (Luke Evans) is painted as a curious skeptic.
And, obviously, everyone is packing a whole boatload of secrets. This group is a veritable Titanic of secrets.
Nine Perfect Strangers is adapted from a novel written by Liane Moriarty, a writer who has made a very successful career off of writing about people with deeply held secrets. Moriarty also penned Big Little Lies, which was adapted into a HBO series also starring Kidman. Big Little Lies showrunner David E. Kelly is once again on board, bringing a tripartite reunion to tell a new story with a familiar vibe. Aquatic symbolism is everywhere. Pivotal moments of the series are often precipitated by images of the crystalline infinity pool or dramatic cliffs jutting over bodies of water. Also, the Kelley signature karaoke scene is inexplicably included in a later episode, and flashy musical cues ride shotgun at curious times. The costumes are thoughtfully realized, and the setting is lush, moneyed, and escapist.
(There’s something to be said about how Kelley has, of late, been setting his characters in structures with astonishing amounts of glass, perhaps commenting on how we’re all just souls swimming in a fish bowl, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
Despite its storied TV pedigree, this series is probably not what you think it is. Early reactions on social media have compared it to HBO’s The White Lotus, a show that centers on absurdly rich people and how utterly unhappy they are, even in paradise. And, while there are some deliciously shocking surprises in Nine Perfect Strangers, none of them center on privileged people wallowing in misery. Instead, the series provides a refreshing counterpoint to poking fun at the bad behavior of the über wealthy. Even though some of them are quite well off, every single guest at Tranquillum approaches their path to wellness in an earnest and open manner. They’re sincerely looking to become better people through spiritual enlightenment and emotional catharsis.
Tranquillum offers a lot of treatments and therapies based on Eastern medicine such as sound bathing, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, and more. A scene in the trailer that received a lot of attention was the group digging — and then lying in — their own graves. (Yes, this is a therapy. No, it is not evidence-based.) But the real centerpiece of the wellness retreat is Masha herself. The guests might not know much, but what they do know is that Masha is a legend and they all desperately want to be in her orbit.
Masha is the type of role that actors just adore sinking their teeth into. She’s a gorgeous, almost otherworldly figure, but she’s also an unhinged egotistical maniac with ulterior motives, and she could do or say anything at any moment. The very hierarchy of Tranquillum allows her to do whatever she wants as it places her in power above everyone else. Shocker, she’s not great at respecting boundaries. It’s not even clear if she knows what boundaries are. She has a staff of loyal followers who treat her like she hung the moon and stars. This staff includes the nervous Delilah (Tiffany Boone) and the zen Yao (Manny Jacinto). In his first high profile TV role since The Good Place, Jacinto is surely going to surprise viewers who are only familiar with him as Jason Mendoza. He shows a lovely range here as Yao, who is a thoughtful, grounded, and meticulous man… or the exact opposite of the doofy and impulsive Jason.
Speaking of The Good Place, Nine Perfect Strangers also often plays off the idea that people have the power to make other people better. This is the crux of any good group therapy, and Masha — for all her ethical lapses, and she has a few doozies — does seem to know what she’s doing in this one regard. As a therapist myself, I noticed several instances of good practices in group building. Masha has screened all her applicants beforehand and carefully curated this specific cohort of nine to play to one another’s weaknesses and strengths, but has she miscalculated or gone too far? Or might her other, more unconventional, treatments get in the way of true healing?
Ultimately, even though Kidman is clearly having a ball with the character, Masha is kind of an exaggerated caricature of wellness gurus. A subplot involving Masha’s checkered past seems orchestrated to drum up more suspense — and to provide those teasing, gauzy flashbacks that viewers have come to expect in dramas like Big Little Lies — but it just ends up distracting from the fascinating interplay between the titular strangers. However, I say this with the caveat that only six episodes out of eight were available for screening at the time of this review’s publishing, so it remains to be seen how the resolution of Masha’s story will overlap with her guests.
The rest of the cast is spellbinding as they lay their characters’ souls bare. The material goes deep on serious mental health issues, including several long interludes focusing on suicide and suicidal ideation, so a trigger warning might be appropriate for some viewers. The therapeutic setting allows many opportunities for intense introspection, which means it is positively chock full of juicy monologues. Given the gravity of the material and dialogue, all of the actors rise admirably to the challenge, but one of the real standouts is Regina Hall. Her character Carmel is an unsteady soul, and Hall imbues her with a terrifying vulnerability that is sure to leave viewers on the edge of their seats whenever she’s on screen.
The interactions between Tony and Frances are another true delight of the series. McCarthy and Cannavale have a crackling chemistry, and their scenes together deliver some of the biggest laughs, but also some of the deepest emotional beats. Samara Weaving also delivers some much-needed levity by delivering one-liners with panache and purpose.
Ultimately, Nine Perfect Strangers is a perfect TV series for this moment of palpable uncertainty in the world. It’s an absorbing and seductive portrait of the relationships between people and how even strangers can effectively make space for one another to heal their past traumas. By the end of the third episode, the world at Tranquillum is cracked wide open. Masha lurks in the wings, pulling the strings, waiting for her guests to unravel so she can make them whole again. And as the nine perfect strangers take their first shaky steps towards transformation, it becomes clear that this particular path to wellness is a trip well worth taking.
The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers will be available to stream August 18 on Hulu.