Take one group of privileged-but-damaged souls played by a name-brand cast, imprison them in a stunning setting, add a foreboding mystery, and let their past traumas careen off of each other as the drama escalates. This is the formula TV auteur David E. Kelley, actor Nicole Kidman and blockbuster author Liane Moriarty have developed as a go-to for the Streaming Era. It made “Big Little Lies” a zeitgeisty hit in 2017, and it works some of its illusory magic in “Nine Perfect Strangers,” though this time, the flashy moments of melodrama don’t seem to add up to much.
It begins as a promising farce, a knowing send-up of wellness culture. Nine strangers are gathering at a beautiful, remote location in Northern California called Tranquillum House for a 10-day “transformation retreat.” (This premise allowed for a closely monitored filming pod to be formed and contained in one Australian location for easier pandemic shooting.) One guest quips of their self-improvement quest, a knowing wink to the show’s title: “If we keep getting better, eventually we’ll be perfect. And then what?”
It’s the kind of kookily diverse group you find in such set-ups, ripe for drama: The Marconi family got a mysterious deep discount to attend, bringing teacher Napoleon (Michael Shannon), wife Heather (Asher Keddie) and 20-year-old daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten) into contact with the much wealthier other guests. Lamborghini-driving Ben (Melvin Gregg) is there to save his marriage to beautiful influencer Jessica (Samara Weaving). Cantankerous drug addict Tony (Bobby Cannavale), nervous mother Carmel (Regina Hall), and confrontational Lars (Luke Evans) come with backstories played as reveals. And bestselling romance author Frances (Melissa McCarthy) is the most open about who she is and why she’s there — her professional and romantic lives have both recently imploded as she reaches middle age. “I’m going to come back a whole new me,” she says. “Maybe everyone will like that one better.”
They’re all led on their wellness journey by Masha (Nicole Kidman), a Russian immigrant and former CEO-turned-guru; and her two helpers, Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), who form a codependent thruple with her.
One thing is clear from the start: There will be a lot of beautiful smoothies, with cameras often lingering on their menacing preparation. Chop! Chop! Blend! But the series’ themes, messages, relevance and even plot stakes are much less clear in the six episodes (of a total of eight) made available for review. After some initial pointed mockery, a deadly seriousness settles over the portrayal of Tranquillum’s patchwork approach to therapies — some singing bowls here, some scream therapy in a sweat lodge there, some extra special ingredients in the smoothies everywhere. Wellness culture is ripe for satire and analysis, and when Frances quips that they’re all so desperate they’re willing to try anything, she’s hinting at this. But the show doesn’t mine that vein.
Instead, it focuses more than it should on Masha, revealed to be a problematic guru at best. She could be fascinating, but she suffers from a deadly serious portrayal, an inscrutability that prevents her from evoking empathy. One longs for camp here: This seemingly earnest approach squanders all of the fun promised by Frances’ initial description of her as an “amazing mystical Eastern Bloc unicorn.” And the series doubles down on that bad bet, placing a Masha-dependent mystery at its center without selling the audience on why we should care: Someone is sending threatening messages to her, and we are, presumably, supposed to be invested in who’s sending them and why. Instead, every sequence related to this mystery feels like a nervous tic, a defense mechanism in therapy. Why won’t the series grapple with the deeper questions it brings up instead of indulging in these distractions?
The starry performances keep a lot of “Nine Perfect Strangers” afloat, even if they don’t cohere into a unified vision. Shannon chews the picturesque scenery (and sings a startling amount) as a father masking his grief over his son’s suicide with a chatty, happy-go-lucky demeanor. Weaving charmingly fills the Alexis Rose-shaped hole in our lives. It’s fun to see Jacinto, so brilliant as the sweet airhead Jason on “The Good Place,” play a spiritual hunk who’s drunk Masha’s Kool-Aid. And Cannavale and McCarthy are as watchable as ever as a bickering twosome destined for screwball romance. Others’ talents are scrambled by their inconsistent characters: The mysterious identities of Carmel and Lars in particular leave Hall and Evans to struggle with unmotivated actions that read more as confusing than intriguing. Still, they’re all so good that it’s easy to keep watching, even when the nine strangers’ struggles don’t add up to as much as you’d hope.
Masha says some intriguing things in the first episode: “They come for the suffering,” she intones, explaining her guests’ motivations. And when confronted by one of those guests about her unorthodox therapeutic methods — is she f—ing with them? — she gives the first episode a parting shot that leaves you panting for more: “This is Tranquillum,” she says. “I mean to f— with all of you.” It’s too bad she doesn’t deliver more on her promise.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” premieres Wednesday, Aug. 18 on Hulu, with new episodes streaming weekly.