November 28, 2021

elprincipelila

There's nothing like our health

An Intriguing Blend of Comedy, Drama, and Horror

5 min read

The title characters of Nine Perfect Strangers, who travel to a secluded Northern California wellness resort in search of some sort of healing, aren’t just looking for a geographical escape from their lives. Instead, this eclectic assortment of individuals is in search of freedom from the problems which haunt them, a concept captured perfectly in the most memorable lines from the trailer: “I don’t want to suffer,” Frances (Melissa McCarthy) tells Masha (Nicole Kidman). “You’re already suffering,” Masha replies.

Based on the book by Liane Moriarty and adapted by David E. Kelley and John Henry Butterworth for this eight-part limited series, Nine Perfect Strangers represents a massive achievement in the realm of casting, bringing together one of the most packed ensembles in recent memory, including Kidman, McCarthy, Luke Evans, Melvin Gregg, Samara Weaving, Michael Shannon, Asher Keddie, Grace Van Patten, Manny Jacinto, Tiffany Boone, Regina Hall, and Bobby Cannavale. As we learned from The Princess Bride, “life is pain, princess,” but every single one of these characters is struggling with deeper issues than the average bear: successful author Frances (McCarthy) has just suffered a number of personal and professional embarrassments, retired professional athlete Tony (Cannavale) is facing his addiction issues head-on, while young married couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Weaving) shows up to work on their relationship and the Marconi clan (Shannon, Keddie, and Van Patten) arrive to process a difficult and tragic anniversary.

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Image via Hulu

There’s also Lars (Evans), whose reasons for being there are more complicated than they seem on the surface, and Carmel (Hall), a woman still nursing the brutal wounds of her ex-husband’s infidelity. While they’re all paying for the privilege of being at Tranquillum House, they were personally selected to attend by Masha (Kidman), a mysterious figure who seems singularly dedicated to the cause of healing people, albeit with potentially explosive or dangerous methods.

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As it takes place at a wellness resort, Nine Perfect Strangers features a lot of smoothies on screen, which becomes a pretty good metaphor for how moments of comedy, drama, and legit horror blend together for a dense, rich, and often tasty concoction. The premise contains touches of Agatha Christie despite the immediate lack of a murder — I say immediate because only six of the eight episodes were made available for review, and based on what happens in the first six literally anything feels possible.

Yet while there’s no murder (yet) in this story, there are still plenty of mysteries, as the complicated histories of these characters come out, along with a growing undercurrent of dread as Masha’s methodology towards self-improvement begin to emerge. The line between self-help institution and cult is a much fuzzier one than you might think, if only because both concepts involve the same sort of willingness to surrender to a new teaching. It’s the ultimate sort of trust fall, requiring that you put not just your body but your psyche in the hands of someone else, and Nine Perfect Strangers excels at capturing this dynamic, with perhaps the biggest twist being the extremes to which these characters are brought.

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Image via Hulu

While the core cast is notably large — the nine perfect strangers of the title, plus the support staff of Tranquillum House — the individual members of the ensemble are all strong enough actors to ensure that when the spotlight falls on them, they feel like the main character. And what’s most exciting is getting to see how those with established personas are able to transform: McCarthy is a two-time Oscar nominee due to her strength in creating fresh and unique characters, but it’s still impressive to see how completely she manages to make Frances come alive from her first moments on screen.

In addtion, Regina Hall is a particular standout, playing a totally different character from her cool and confident role on Showtime’s Black Monday — Carmel is all extremes, and watching her navigate those emotions is gripping. And while Jacinto was truly singular as Jason Mendoza on The Good Place, he gets to demonstrate a totally different sort of range here, delivering a much calmer, complicated performance as Masha’s right-hand man Yao.

It’s hard to get a read on what exactly Kidman is doing as the center of this growing maelstrom, but that’s more embedded in the nature of the character, and the claustrophobic nature of the storytelling. Director Jonathan Levine‘s greatest success is in making this cast work together so cohesively, even if the fluctuations of the tone occasionally get distracting, as if it’s never totally clear what this show wants to be.

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Image via Hulu

But it still represents a unique entry in the ongoing trend of limited series, so focused on its characters and their journeys that the smallest personal breakthrough feels like an onscreen explosion. The whole concept of looking outside of yourself for answers is for some people a daunting one. Internal monsters are a lot scarier than external ones — and they’re harder to kill. Nine Perfect Strangers captures that dynamic in such an engaging way that while the remaining episodes could change everything, right now it’s one of the most intriguing shows of the year.

The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers premiere August 18 on Hulu. The remaining episodes premiere weekly on Wednesdays.

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