TLDR: The book is better, but not by much…
Everywhere you turn this summer TV season, it seems you’re surrounded by rich people’s problems. First came The White Lotus and now Nine Perfect Strangers. Full disclosure: I have not seen The White Lotus yet. I know, I know – I’ve heard it’s amazing. I’ll get to it! I’m aware there are a lot of similarities between the two, but I won’t be comparing and contrasting.
Nine Perfect Strangers is a Hulu miniseries based on Liane Moriarty’s (author of Big Little Lies) novel of the same name. It’s the story of nine entitled people who seek solace and reformation at a wellness retreat run by a terrifyingly beautiful Russian woman named Masha (Nicole Kidman), who always looks like she just stepped off the set of Midsommar.
Each stranger is here for a different reason, and their interest is piqued when they learn that the acceptance rate to Tranquillum House is exceedingly low, and Masha has selected them all for a very specific reason. That reason, along with the root of each character’s damage, remains a mystery.
First, we have Frances (Melissa McCarthy), a once-successful but now down-on-her-luck romance novelist who can’t seem to make her own love life work. She was catfished to the tune of thousands by a guy she thought she loved, named Paul. Frances is the most tolerable of Tranquillum House’s guests in that she’s the only one who seems remotely human. I’d split a bottle of Chardonnay with Frances for sure, and I don’t even like Chardonnay. McCarthy steals the show, though there’s really no other contender to steal from.
Next there’s Tony (Bobby Cannavale), an always-angry, pill-popping former football star who seems like he’s only there to make everyone else as miserable as possible. Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica Chandler (Samara Weaving) are a social-media obsessed millennial couple hoping to work through marital issues. The Marconi family consists of Napoleon (Michael Shannon), Heather (Asher Keddie), and daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten). They have the most fruitful sob story: they’re trying to move on after Zoe’s twin brother Zach committed suicide.
Then there’s Carmel (Regina Hall) who claims she just wants to lose weight. She seems somewhat normal until her anger issues bubble to the surface and she tries to kill fellow guest Lars (Luke Evans). Lars is the most reluctant retreat participant, and we get the sense he’s only there to antagonize Masha and get to the bottom of her “healing” tactics.
Their fearless leader, Masha, was once clinically dead after being shot and is evidently using her second shot at life to inflict new-age wheatgrass torture upon entitled people in an effort to “heal” them. That healing might also involve microdosing them with LSD in their morning smoothies. She’s helped by a handful of workers, always clad in white and looking like they only have a slightly better idea of what’s going on than the guests themselves. Yao (Manny Jacinto) is the paramedic who saved her life after she was declared dead from a gunshot wound. They have an emotional-bordering-on-sensual connection, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend and fellow employee, Delilah (Tiffany Boone).
In essence, Tranquillum House is a powder keg of tension, deceit, and sorrow. Moriarty has a skill for weaving mystery throughout her narratives. I’m a big fan of her books and have read them all, but Nine Perfect Strangers was not my favorite. The show suffers from the same problem the book had: I get that these people all have problems and there’s a mystery that’s unraveling, but I’m not sure if I care.
There’s too much going for you to focus on any one person or problem in particular. Each character’s individual drama waters down the narrative instead of elevating it, and while we’re being told over and over that these strangers weren’t chosen randomly and they’re all here for a reason, we never quite trust that’s the case because Masha seems even more cuckoo than her guests.
Melissa McCarthy’s performance stands out above all the rest. It’s nice to see her display some range of emotion instead of relying on slapstick and fat jokes. She’s a great actress when she has the chance to stretch her skills. There’s no denying that Nicole Kidman is great too, but she doesn’t have much to work with here. While it’s clear the writers’ intention is to make Masha mysterious and interesting, she just comes off as one-note.
I was rooting for this show and while all the groundwork is laid for it to be great, it’s simply mediocre. Although I’ve never seen a single solitary second of The White Lotus, you may be better off watching that instead.