A group of city-dwellers with considerable emotional baggage travel to a wellness retreat at the secluded Tranquilla House in California. Under guru Masha’s (Nicole Kidman) regime, the strangers embark on what they believe is an experimental path towards self-improvement. It soon becomes clear, however, that they’ve been chosen for another reason.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
Nine Perfect Strangers has a high bar to meet thanks to the recent zeitgeist of hugely popular, exquisite-looking shows about the underbelly of privilege. Its star Nicole Kidman and co-creator David E. Kelley have already collaborated on two of them: Big Little Lies, a soapy drama about a group of wealthy women thrown together by trauma, and The Undoing, a tense Upper East Side whodunnit co-starring a seriously slippery Hugh Grant. More recently still, HBO’s satire The White Lotus gleefully tormented the moneyed visitors and long-suffering staff of an idyllic holiday resort.
This latest offering, which comes courtesy of Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, certainly matches its peers in terms of opulence by cashing in on the aspirational aesthetic of the wellness industry. The retreat itself is a coastal nirvana with hints of Ex Machina in its clinical architecture and hidden cameras. The interiors exude money through their minimalist design, and glacial shots of exotic fruit being blended together border on erotic.
In spite of its intrigue and the collective energy of the cast, the emotional stakes aren’t up there with the show’s predecessors.
Then there’s the weighty star power. Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon are the most prolific names behind Kidman, the former plays Francis, a failing, heartbroken writer who wears immaculate red lipstick, the latter is Napoleon, a grieving, chatty father who has scored his family a discounted ticket to the retreat.
Samara Weaving, who is consistently excellent even if her body of work isn’t, imbues her contoured Instagram star with vulnerability and a beardy Bobby Canavale plays a curmudgeonly former athlete battling PTSD and addiction.
To make Nine Perfect Strangers anything other than a means to scratch the post-Big Little Lies itch however, it needs a new hook. The set-up is enthralling enough: upon their arrival guests are served a smoothie adapted to their metabolic needs along with NDAs, and the colourful roster of activities ranges from potato sack races to digging graves. The dialogue is reliably provocative – “I do something for a living so I don’t do kids,” Francis says thoughtlessly to Regina Hall’s meek single mother – and it’s refreshing to see comedy performers such as McCarthy maintain that finessed caustic wit but with a significant backstory to work with.
The selling point, it quickly becomes clear, is Kidman’s ethereal guru. With Galadriel hair, an aquiline stare and a patchy Russian accent, Masha has all the trappings of a cult leader with the power to lead people willingly to their demise. A prolonged look or carefully executed question can and does bring guests to their knees, and in true Kelley fashion, her motives are staggered to keep both us and her hapless clients grappling for clues. Meanwhile, her mysterious past, which involved heavy partying and a near-death experience, is catching up with her via a series of anonymous text threats.
Yet in spite of its intrigue and the vastly entertaining collective energy of the cast, the emotional stakes aren’t up there with the show’s predecessors. The series creators have opted for a relay race of feelings over a few strong narrative arcs, with the baton passed too quickly between too many characters to feel richly satisfying. As a result, Nine Perfect Strangers chooses to play out as a perfectly enjoyable but overstuffed extension of the shows that have come before it, rather than breaking off into radical new terrain.
This handsome-looking show suffers from distractingly busy storytelling and lacks the satirical bite of its peers, but is carried by the sheer magnetism of its starry ensemble