Fans of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing” will naturally be drawn to the reunion of talent on Hulu’s “Nine Perfect Strangers,” but they should prepare for a very different kind of late summer vacation. Much less of a mystery and much more of a soap opera, this collaboration between David E. Kelley, Nicole Kidman, and Liane Moriarty (the author of “Big Little Lies” also penned this source material) is more of an internal journey than an external thriller. Sure, there are secrets, revelations, and even death threats, but “Nine Perfect Strangers” is about damaged people trying to heal in a place run by a mysterious woman who may need the most healing of all. Ultimately, it’s a mixed bag in terms of quality, best viewed as a performance piece from a ridiculously talented ensemble, even if the writing doesn’t always rise to their skill level.
In the premiere, nine very imperfect strangers arrive at a distant retreat called Tranquillum House, an exclusive health and wellness resort that only accepts a small percentage of the many people who try to book a trip there. Of course, every single one of them comes with heavy baggage like grief, trauma, insecurity, and all the other things that millions pay to try and fix on a daily basis. Headed by a mysterious Russian named Masha (Nicole Kidman), Tranquillum promises a transformative experience, even if a startling number of the attendees seem stubbornly uninterested in doing what it takes to truly transform.
If there’s a central visitor in what’s really a very balanced ensemble piece, it’s Frances Welty (Melissa McCarthy), a novelist balancing dual career and personal crises. She can’t quite figure out how to break out of her career rut while also dealing with deep emotional scars from a traumatic relationship that left her feeling betrayed. From the beginning, she butts heads with the brash Tony Hogburn (Bobby Cannavale), a former athlete dealing with everything from an estranged child to a painkiller addiction, but she also sees a kindred soul in the other person on this retreat who doesn’t seem to quite trust that all the rules and restrictions are in his own best interest.
Frances and Tony are the kind of visitors who can clearly afford Tranquillum, but Napoleon Marconi (Michael Shannon) is constantly reminding his new very rich friends that he got a discount. This isn’t the place for a schoolteacher’s salary, but it seems clear that Masha chose the Marconis as a challenge, trying to break through their intense grief and the very different ways that they’re processing it. Napoleon and his wife Heather (Asher Keddie) lost their son to suicide, and they’ve been on different paths of processing since that horrible day. Napoleon seems to be suppressing grief, outwardly optimistic at every chance, while Heather can’t understand his rosy worldview, pulling her further away from the one person who could best understand her pain. Both are failing their daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten), who will be at Tranquillum on her 21st birthday, the same as her deceased twin brother’s.
Math experts will know that this leaves four strangers: The body dysmorphic Jessica Chandler (Samara Weaving), her increasingly distant husband Ben (Melvin Gregg), the mysterious Lars Lee (Luke Evans), and the fascinating Carmel (Regina Hall), a divorcee dealing with the fallout of her life in a way that seems, well, moody. Alternately sunny and violent, Carmel may be the most interesting of the strangers, a woman who seems clearly emotionally unmoored and who Hall convincingly sells as a person just looking for stability again, even if she falsely believes she has to tear herself down to find it. The strangers are joined by two standout Tranquillum workers—Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone)—who know Masha may be the most imperfect of them all. While “Nine Perfect Strangers” doesn’t turn into an Agatha Christie murder mystery in the episodes sent for press, the tension in the air does make anything possible, and someone out there is threatening Masha’s life. Is it one of the strangers?
“What does that mean? That sounded like it had meaning,” says Frances in a line that could be commenting on her own show. A lot of “Nine Perfect Strangers” is weighted with melodramatic dialogue that sounds like it has meaning. Kelley and co-writer John Henry Butterworth (“Ford vs. Ferrari”) move their pieces around an emotional chessboard, but the game starts to get exhausting relatively early. So much of the writing on “Nine Perfect Strangers” sounds like therapy, which is inherent in the context of the show, but gives it all an overwritten tone that smothers character. These damaged souls are here to dig into what damaged them, which doesn’t really allow them to breathe, and so it feels hard to get to know them outside of their traumas. Some of the show’s best scenes are the too-few moments of levity or scenes at a big table over meals when the cast is allowed to just be in this gorgeous space and define their characters outside of their melodramas.
Even within the tight confines of this story, a cast this talented can find ways to impress. They’re all good to great, with the possible exception of, believe it or not, Kidman, who too often leans on the enigma of the character. (However, it should be noted that Hulu didn’t send the final two episodes to press and an actress as brilliant as Kidman could easily stick the landing.) As for the strangers, Shannon gets a heartbreaking monologue in Episode 3 that he nails, taking a character that seems thin and making him much more complex from that point on. He’s an actor who’s legitimately always good and often great. Cannavale and McCarthy have a fun chemistry, even if their arc starts to feel a little forced. Hall does nuanced work; Weaving does a lot with a clichéd part; Van Patten finds genuine notes in her character’s grief. Everyone will have a different standout, which is a testament to the quality of the ensemble and the direction of them by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”), who helms all eight episodes.
That’s how to take this TV vacation—experience “Nine Perfect Strangers” is as an appreciation of a perfect cast. Looking deeper than that reveals its flaws. It lacks the mystery or social commentary of something like “The White Lotus” (another Summer 2021 hit about damaged people on a beautiful vacation) but the people gathered here find enough truthful grace notes about the human condition to justify the trip. This show may not be “perfect,” but who is? [B-]
“Nine Perfect Strangers” debuts on Hulu on August 18.