Across the board, self-improvement appears to be a noble and admirable quest; the vast majority of us recognize that we have an area or two (or more) that we should probably work on, if we could just find the time and/or energy. In Nine Perfect Strangers, several searching souls alight on an extravagant idyllic retreat called Tranquillum, run by an enigmatic Russian guru named Masha. She offers them total transformation—but at what price?
David E. Kelley, Liane Moriarty, and Nicole Kidman have already offered us a prestige miniseries exposing the tamped-down problems of privileged people: HBO’s multiple Emmy-winning Big Little Lies. Like BLL’s ill-advised second season, Nine Perfect Strangers isn’t quite as successful; the creators may have gone for one too many miniseries with this one, especially on the heels of Kelley and Kidman’s The Undoing on HBO last year. NPS moves the cast of characters from wealthy grade-school moms to the titular group of spa attendees, who all have their own mysterious backstories and different goals they’re striving for.
Perhaps that group jelled better on paper (full disclosure: I’ve read the book) but for some reason onscreen this group so far is jarringly disparate, which makes for a tough watch even though that is likely the story’s intention. Luckily, the acting roster is stellar, which helps draw us in just like the tranquil music and whatever the hell is in all of those smoothies (that is some ominous blender footage that opens the episode). With so many characters, the first episode mainly functions as place-setting and to stoke anticipation for what’s ahead. Even in this crowded, talented field, Michael Shannon stands out as Napoleon, the self-described “loquacious” husband and father who just wants his family (Asher Keddie as his wife Heather and Grace Van Patten as daughter Zoe) to be happy, even when it’s obvious that they’re anything but. Melissa McCarthy can even make the most of a non-charming character like Frances, who is undeniably rude to admirers like Carmel, played by a nearly unrecognizable Regina Hall against her usually glamorous self. Frances is obviously headed toward a love match with her current sparring parter Tony (Bobby Cannavale, partner of McCarthy’s frequent co-star Rose Byrne), as they first encounter each other in a meet-cute that wouldn’t even pass muster on most rom-coms. Also along for the ride are prosperous young couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving), and Lars (Luke Evans), who’s an apparent narcissist just dumped by his boyfriend.
The cast almost seems as bewildered as their characters, thrust as they are into this beatific place with ominous undertones. It’s unfortunate that they all get off on the wrong foot with each other nearly across the board, from Carmel’s awkward run-ins with Frances, Tony, and Lars to Frances’ well-intentioned but wrongly received compliment of the Marconi family (“Why would you say that?”). There was absolutely no reason for Tony to honk his horn so obnoxiously at a supposedly peaceful retreat, except to place him immediately on Ben’s bad side. At least Lars and Zoe have taken tentative steps toward an actual friendship, and there’s no way that Leon doesn’t wind up winning everyone over due to his inherent goofiness.
Nevertheless, they’re all at Tranquillum hopefully headed toward that aforementioned self-improvement, steered by the mysterious Masha. As our transformation guru, though, Nicole Kidman doesn’t inspire confidence as much as giggles this episode, what with her strange wandering accent (supposedly Russian) and her latest voluminous hair carpet (see also: Celeste’s strawberry blondeness on Big Little Lies and Grace’s cascade of red curls on The Undoing). Masha does introduce an appropriate sense of menace, promising a much more challenging journey than any of the nine were expecting. So apparently this fractured—although apparently carefully curated—group will need to come together eventually: cut off from the outside world (it’s kind of funny how much panic losing their phones incites in people), and having signed over apparent property and biological rights (those blood draws!), they are now at the mercy of Masha, who quickly transforms from guru to possible villain as the episode draws to a close.
- Welcome to Nine Perfect Strangers’ episodic coverage everyone! I’ll also be dropping reviews for the second and third episode today, then weekly as Hulu releases new episodes. Little uncertain about where this journey intends to take us, but like Napoleon, glad to be on board. If you have read the book, though, please keep this space spoiler-free for those who have not!
- To that end, I watched the first episode with a friend who hadn’t read the book: She was immediately intrigued by Masha’s “I’m going to fuck with all of you” cliffhanger line that ended the episode, and wanted to watch the second one immediately.
- Fun to see Manny Jacinto on here as Masha’s minion Yao, apparently the one who saved her life all those years ago. It’s still so hard not to just think of him as Jason on The Good Place though.
- Perhaps the most awkward moment in an episode fulled with awkward moments was poor Michael Shannon having to yell out “Napoleon!” and having Melissa McCarthy respond “Genghis Khan!” Who just yells out their name to introduce themselves? Was it supposed to be funny? If so, it landed with a distinct thud.
- This Frances line about Masha was pretty great, though: “She’s like this amazing, mystical Eastern Bloc unicorn… see what I mean?”
- At the top of the Nine Perfect Strangers list this episode: Heather, who’s actually brave enough to stand up against Masha.