There’s a lot of mystery throughout Nine Perfect Strangers, the eight-part series based on the Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies) novel of the same name. From Nicole Kidman’s whispery guru (reunited with her Big Little Lies and The Undoing collaborator, David E. Kelley) with a secret past and even more mysterious hidden agenda, to the revelations that slowly tumble out of each of the guests at this lush wellness spa, there’s plenty that kept me guessing. But there was only one mystery that I wrestled with as the series wound down to its finale, namely, “Is this a good show?”
Much of my fence walking has to do with the many compelling elements within the series. There’s the premise, which features an assortment of guests staying at an exclusive “transformation retreat” called Tranquillum (which sounds like a deceptive drug in a B-rated sci fi film), located in a verdant section of California. Comparisons to HBO’s recent series White Lotus are impossible to avoid and although both feature an ensemble cast ‘getting away from it all,’ the similarities fall off rather quickly. Where the latter is a cynical comedy that afforded a few laughs but had nothing new to contribute to the discussion on class it so eagerly sought, Nine Perfect Strangers offers none of the prickliness of Mike White’s creation. Instead, the Hulu series features individuals who consistently empathize with one another while they wrestle with their own serious problems. There’s the Marconis, a family of three still reeling from an immense loss, each of whom are handling it in their own separate ways. Napoleon (Michael Shannon) has sought out shelter in ceaseless optimism, as though worried that if he ends up looking downward into the chasm of grief for even a moment, he may never climb back out of it again. This has been a source of resentment for his wife Heather (Asher Keddie), because although she runs from the worst of her grief (quite literally), she feels isolated due to the unhappiness that is now a permanent fixture in her life. Meanwhile, daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten) is left to fend for herself, so traumatized by the pain that she can’t bring herself to use the word “died,” opting for the more passive “stopped living.” Much of the show revolves around their grief, especially as it works its way up to an increasingly off-kilter climax.
Each of the other six guests also bring a plentiful amount of baggage of their own. High school sweethearts Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving) are dealing with an increasingly shaky marriage being crushed under the weight of what would be, for most other people, an incredible bout of luck. Jessica is very much the ‘influencer’ type, with her lengthy extensions and over-the-top spray tan, and it’s easy to make less than flattering assumptions about her. Thankfully, the story doesn’t take the lazy route with her, granting her an earnest sweetness and vulnerability that belies her seemingly self-involved ways. It’s unfortunate Ben isn’t granted equal room for emotional expression. He delivers one meaningful monologue which holds great narrative promise that winds up never being pursued. Other guests include Lars (Luke Evans), a guest with a hidden agenda, and Carmel (Regina Hall), a divorceé with rage issues. Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale as Frances and Tony, respectively, receive the most development, with her caginess and his self-destructive tendencies held at bay long enough to create a bond that’s tender enough that it makes it hard not to root for them.
Conflict is the fuel behind many a story, and although Nine Perfect Strangers doesn’t truly have an antagonist to speak of (the real conflict emerges mostly from internal issues), Nicole Kidman’s Masha, with her many machinations, is the closest thing to it. Kidman is, I’m sorry to say, the show’s weakest link. Sorry only because despite a great amount of effort, her portrayal of the mysterious guru is impossible to pin down (and not in a meaningful way). With her accent and devised eccentricity, there’s an insincerity that would probably be successful were it not for the fact that Masha is intended to be genuine. Even when her background and not-quite honorable true intentions begin to be revealed, the insistent saintly quality placed upon her feels like a con, which would be compelling if the target were the guests within her compound rather than the show’s audience. Her employees (known as “wellness consultants”), who also operate as the people closest to her, sell the effect far more convincingly. Zoe Terakes (who uses they/them pronouns) is especially beguiling as Glory, an admittedly limited role, but one that left a lasting impression (those expression changes, whoa). Masha keeps Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone) especially close, but that dynamic is soon revealed to be problematic in more ways than one, and though the rift that emerges is to be expected, there’s little satisfaction in it, nor in their final fate.
Spoilers about the finale
Unlike a lot of critics, I kept my opinion on the show’s quality flexible (see my fence-walking at the top of this article) because there was a lot to be enjoyed. Looking at the entire series as a whole, however, it’s clear that appreciation was due primarily to the heavy lifting done by Shannon, McCarthy, and Cannavale. But not even their wonderful character work (among others) is enough to salvage that terrible finale. Between the reveal that Carmel was not only the one sending threatening texts, but was also the shooter—a reveal which had its enormity bulldozed by the godawful decision to time it when Masha is in a hallucinogenic haze, leaving the realization totally in doubt for an awkward amount of time, thus depriving it of its impact—along with an epilogue that somehow manages to be both underwhelming and baffling, what should have been at least a lively hot mess winds up a tepid gruel instead. Some guests have pleasant enough endings, but a few feel silly, especially Ben and Jessica buying Tranquillum with their lottery winnings.
Since the finale aired, two interpretations of the show’s final minutes have since emerged: the first is that what is shown on screen is what occurs, while the other interpretation is that each parting moment is nothing more than the eventual work of fiction begun by Frances at the Four Seasons. The former is a softer, if more fanciful, reading. It may be schmaltzy, but at least all the guests get a chance at a happily ever after. The other interpretation is the less joyful version, since the only happy ending we can confirm is Masha—the argument being that the Nine Perfect Strangers novel can be seen on top of the dashboard—riding away happy and carefree in Ben’s Lamborghini, hallucinating her daughter by her side. Either interpretation one chooses to believe (for the curious, I believe it to be real), Masha’s ability to live happy and free is a bit of an insult, both for the number of misdeeds she’s committed and the fact that the audience is supposed to feel pleased for her (not to mention a hallucinating woman operating a vehicle that can reach 200mph).
Nine Perfect Strangers is an exercise in mourning in various ways, from the finality of death to the loss of dreams and identity. What is really worthy of mourning, however, is the many wasted opportunities left behind for this final product instead. Yet I’m reluctant to throw the baby out with the ionic bathwater if for nothing else than the fact that the characterizations are so damn strong here. With that said, it doesn’t change the fact that these performers deserved more than a vacuous meditation on wellness heaped onto the notion of ‘the ends justify the means.’ But I also acknowledge that, much as the Tranquillum guests discover—granted, under duress, due to the belief that a fiery death is upon them—it is of little use to mourn what could have been.
All episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers are available to stream on Hulu.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t wondering where McCarthy’s extremely comfortable-looking swimsuit came from, she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Hulu via Youtube