In this new series from the makers of ‘Big Little Lies’, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon and Regina King are among those seeking new direction at a secretive ‘transformation retreat’, though melodrama outweighs the mystery
Before booking yourself on any sort of retreat or getaway, it’s always best to start by checking the host’s bona fides ahead of time. If the same can be said of prestige TV shows, then Nine Perfect Strangers arrives toting impeccable credentials. The eight-part limited series reunites writer/producer David E Kelley, source-material novelist Liane Moriarty and Hollywood A-lister Nicole Kidman, a trio who previously collaborated on the acclaimed Big Little Lies in 2017. This time the setting for their star-studded drama is an idyllic yet mysterious “transformation retreat” in northern California named Tranquillum House, which is presided over by the even more mysterious wellness guru Masha (an ethereal Kidman doing a still more mysterious Russian accent).
Her guests are the titular “nine perfect strangers”: Frances (Melissa McCarthy), a once-celebrated romance novelist who’s suffered a recent personal embarrassment; Carmel (Regina King), a single mother still reeling from being abandoned by her husband; Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a former pro athlete; phone-obsessed influencer Jessica (Samara Weaving) and her wealthy husband Ben (Melvin Gregg); the moody and mysterious Lars (Luke Evans); and finally the Marconi family – Husband Napoleon (Michael Shannon) and wife Heather (Asher Keddie) along with daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten), who are themselves dealing with a shared tragedy.
Masha’s methods for curing their various ills are, it may not surprise you to learn, unorthodox. She and her skeleton staff (the superb if under-utilised Manny Jacinto and Tiffany Boone) regularly draw blood from their guests/patients/victims, while daily smoothies are delivered with the unnerving instruction that they must not be shared and that they must all be finished to the last drop. Additionally, it seems as if it should raise a few alarm bells that everyone has to sign contracts agreeing, among many other things, that posting about Tranquillum House on social media is expressly forbidden. Masha must’ve been on the end of some godawful Yelp reviews.
What Masha promises her guests is nothing less than personal transformation through suffering. Whether or not she achieves the desired effect remains to be seen (reviewers have only been sent six of the eight episodes), but what is clear from the first three-quarters of the series is that the cast are relishing their various metamorphic journeys. Regina King in particular is outstanding as the disarming and multi-faceted Carmel, while a budding connection between Frances and Tony gives Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale plenty of tender meat to get their teeth into.
The stellar cast’s obvious chemistry helps elevate a script that grows increasingly melodramatic as each of their character’s secrets are brought to light. Masha’s unconventional treatments, meanwhile, work better as plot devices than they do as skewerings of the modern wellness industry. Some of its depictions are cliche and hokey, particularly psychobilin’s suspiciously convenient depiction as a mind control agent.
It may all make for toothless satire but it’s still enjoyably soapy TV. Simply put, if you’re going to spend time with one mismatched group of pampered rich people on a secluded retreat this summer, make it The White Lotus, Mike White’s superlative HBO series which also premiered this summer. Nine Perfect Strangers doesn’t pack as many punches or half as many laughs in its designer luggage, but it’s still good fun watching its guests – and their hidden lives – unravel.
Nine Perfect Strangers is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video