Nine guests with secrets, lies and all kinds of baggage converge on a luxury resort, and find themselves unable to leave. If this were a Bunuel movie, it would set the stage for a breakdown of their ivory-tower ideals. If it were an Agatha Christie story, the premise would be ripe for murder, intrigue and a proper work-out for "the little grey cells." But Nine Perfect Strangers is a wannabe prestige drama based on a lesser Liane Moriarty novel. What we get instead is expedited self-discoveries fuelled by a diet of personalised wellness smoothies. Even when the guests learn these smoothies have been spiked with LSD without their consent, they find it hard to escape from the force field of the resort's charismatic founder, played by one Nicole Kidman.
The setting of David E. Kelley's new series is a slice of fenced-in California paradise, fenced in to keep the poor people out. So, the rich can get a break from their oh-so-chaotic lives, refresh and recharge their batteries in the yoga dome and hot springs of Tranquillum House. A whole host of problems " grief, addiction, low self-esteem and fading intimacy " reveal themselves as the guests undergo increasingly unconventional therapeutic practices. Besides participating in fasting, meditation and potato sack races, they are made to dig their own graves to come to terms with death, beat a dummy with a stick to purge their anger, and forage for their own food to learn self-sufficiency.
Watching people deal with their inner demons in confinement and grow together, it's hard not to sympathise, considering what we have all been through over the last 18 months and counting.
In fact, the reason we're seeing more and more stories like The White Lotus and Nine Perfect Strangers has to do with the pandemic. Storytellers are simply adapting to the restrictions. Confining the cast and crew to a bubble allows for a controlled shoot, and quick turnaround times. What made The White Lotus work was how the sustained concentration of its characters' specific vices led to conflicts with darkly comic results. Nine Perfect Strangers attempts something similar by steamrolling friction with hallucinations and shared psychosis. In doing so, it spells out the varied anxieties and frailties of the guests, instead of trusting the audience to figure them out.
As is typical for a show with so many characters, the first couple of episodes act as ice-breakers before the show can sink its teeth into the real drama. Families reconcile. New friendships forge. Some romance too. Every guest breaks out of their comfort zone. Drugs help the process. Fish-eye lenses, image and sound distortions, and slowed-down sequences are employed to transport the viewer into earthy psychedelia.
The cast of Nine Perfect Strangers is so stacked the show can barely contain their individual talents when they all come together. No matter who's paired up, the ensemble tries their best to make it work. Melissa McCarthy is Frances, a middle-aged romance novelist who struggles with self-doubt. The publisher has rejected her new book. She was a recent victim of a catfishing scheme. Comedy becomes a crutch for her insecurities, and McCarthy gives her a facetiousness that is easy to identify with. A love-hate bond forms with her and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a former football star trying to recover from drug addiction and reconcile with his estranged daughters.
The Marconis " dad Napoleon (Michael Shannon), wife Heather (Asher Keddie) and daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten) " are a family struggling to recover from a terrible tragedy: the suicide of Zoe's twin brother Zach. The three deal with the shoulda-woulda-couldas as they work through their grief. Each responds differently. Napoleon is keen to find a way through, even if it means increasing the drug dosage. Heather is more withdrawn. A particularly testing day arrives on Zoe's birthday, a day that will never be the same for the family.
Some characters are quite caricature-ish, and don't gain the same depth as Frances or the Marconis. Yet, the actors try to transcend them. Like Regina Hall as Carmel, an overwrought single mom who grows hysterical by the minute as she agonises over losing her daughters to the pretty younger woman her chronically unfaithful ex-husband left her for. Or Samara Weaving as Jessica, an Instagram influencer with body-esteem issues, and Melvin Gregg as her husband Ben, who won the lottery but their rags-to-riches story is no fairy tale. Bringing an element of mystery is Luke Evans as Lars, an undercover journo pretending to be a guest to find dirt on the founder of Tranquillum House.
Speaking of, meet Masha (Kidman). At first glance, she may appear as if she has achieved a state of nirvana. Behind the unconvincing Russian accent, unwavering serenity and whispered wisdom is however a woman struggling to keep it together, as she has been receiving death threats on her phone. The identity of the sender, who is one of the nine perfect strangers, adds to some suspense. In the penultimate episode, we come to learn Carmel is the one behind it. But this confrontation is enfeebled by Masha's quick act of forgiveness, after having gotten high on her own supply.
Overseeing the guests' treatment with Masha are Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), who are in a cult-like co-dependent relationship. Even as Masha begins to cross more and more ethical lines, Yao stands by her. Delilah appears less indoctrinated and eventually starts to question Masha's methods as she starts to increase dosage as if on instinct. The idea of being mistreated in a spa where you go to treat yourself is one ripe for horror. There are red flags throughout. The fact that Masha chooses her guinea pigs. The guests are made to surrender their phones. And they have to get their blood drawn. But the show doesn't really play on the false sense of security you tend to feel in a place of safety and renewal. By the time we check out of Tranquillum House, everyone's seemingly recovered from whatever ailed them. And they all move on with their lives. Or so we are led to believe until the show offers us the possibility of another ending. That all the happy endings may have simply been a fabrication for Frances' next book.
To call Nine Perfect Strangers a satire of the wellness industry is overselling it. For it doesn't really expose its methods to exaggerated and/or humorous effect. Nor does it take to task the crazy notion that wellness industry sells health and spiritual betterment as buyable services. That these services are being sold like some sort of luxury cruise. And that they endorse pseudo-therapeutic practices with a smile and a "Namaste," when all that they are really offering is an aesthetic for the rich to flout on Instagram. No, we get none of that thoughtful criticism of wellness culture you probably expected. What we get instead is a show that strands a great ensemble, turning an eight-episode run that should have been a fresh, easily-drinkable smoothie into a stale, hard-to-chew salad.
Watch the trailer here