Pity the poorly timed TV show. Overstuffed and undercooked, Nine Perfect Strangers likely wouldn’t impress at any point in the calendar. But the Hulu miniseries, adapted from a novel of the same name by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, suffers from an especially serious case of bad timing. Moriarty specializes in beach reads with a bite, so it seems the show’s late-summer release was meant to replicate the experience of turning pages on the sand. Instead, Nine Perfect Strangers has the bad fortune of following The White Lotus, a story with a near-identical premise—and far superior execution.
Both The White Lotus and Nine Perfect Strangers isolate an affluent ensemble at a luxury getaway where they’re catered to by a staff who aren’t quite as eager as they’re paid to appear. On The White Lotus, the backdrop is a five-star resort in Hawaii, while on Nine Perfect Strangers, it’s a wellness retreat in Northern California. Still, the distinctions between the two amount to little more than splitting hairs on expertly applied wigs. The White Lotus is a hotel first and foremost, but it comes with the promise of transformation and change; the awkwardly named Tranquillum may treat its patrons like patients in need of care, but they’re still paying handsomely for the privilege.
The overlap is uncanny, though it’s not a surprise. Both shows live at the intersection of two related trends: shows that satirize conspicuous consumption while reveling in its excesses, à la Succession or Gossip Girl, and miniseries that use A-list talent to attract an audience overwhelmed with options. The White Lotus may have had a few weeks’ head start, but it still followed in others’ footsteps. It’s Nine Perfect Strangers that has a credible claim to being first, or at least its creative team does: Moriarty’s Big Little Lies became a smash hit HBO series, and that show shares both a star (Nicole Kidman) and a screenwriter (David E. Kelley) with this Hulu series. (Kelley cowrote the scripts with John-Henry Butterworth, while all eight episodes were directed by Long Shot’s Jonathan Levine.) Both shows follow the same playbook. The Nine Perfect Strangers team just happened to create the show that kick-started the limited-series arms race.
There are also logistical parallels between The White Lotus and Nine Perfect Strangers due to more recent developments. During the pandemic, safety protocols favor isolated productions with limited locations—a constraint easier for viewers to stomach when the location happens to have a stunning view. For a few months in late 2020, The White Lotus took over the Four Seasons Maui. In the case of Nine Perfect Strangers, pandemic planning resulted in a minor absurdity. As with Big Little Lies, the novel takes place in Australia, while the TV show transplants the action to Northern California. But at the last minute, production moved back to the southern continent, where geography and strict quarantines kept the number of coronavirus cases far lower than in the States. The setting, meanwhile, remains unchanged. If you’re at all familiar with either region, there’s an almost comic dissonance between where the story nominally takes place and the exotic flora on display in the background. Think more Hanging Rock, less Big Sur.
A few of Nine Perfect Strangers’ Aussie actors even keep their native accents—though not Kidman, whose checkered history with accent work doesn’t stop her from going for broke as the mysterious Masha, a woman as Russian as her name makes her sound. Once a high-powered corporate shark, Masha founded Tranquillum after a near-death experience and reinvented herself as a guru with flowing white hair and dresses to match. Her deputies are part employee, part acolyte; chief among them is Yao (Manny Jacinto), a former EMT who helped save Masha’s life after she was shot point-blank in a parking garage. Exactly who came for Masha and why is unknown, as is much else about her and the center she runs. Her guests, on the other hand, waste no time putting their cards on the table, much as some try to keep them close to the chest.
The motley crew that comes to Tranquillum is Nine Perfect Strangers’ main attraction, a cast as stacked as any marquee miniseries before it. But while Big Little Lies zeroed in on a specific niche (affluent white women) and maxed out within it, Nine Perfect Strangers is more of a grab bag, a mismatched assortment that gives the impression we’re watching a game of Clue art-directed by Gwyneth Paltrow. There’s little that unites these people beyond their willingness to pay for such amenities as smoothies custom calibrated to their metabolic needs. There are no wallflowers here, only a collage of equally loud colors. But instead of any intended power clash, the effect is more like a cacophony that drowns anything and everything out.
Melissa McCarthy steps into the prestige TV ring as Frances, a middle-aged romance novelist who comes to Tranquillum to recover from a catfishing scheme. It’s a promising piece of casting, and one that hints the comedian could follow up on her 2018 Oscar nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me?—her second nomination, and first for a dramatic role—by going head-to-head with Kidman. But as the title suggests, Nine Perfect Strangers is far from a two-hander; it’s more like a free-for-all, a 12-way melée for the title of Most Acting. Rather than give a character like Frances space to process her trauma or complicate the stereotype of a bitter older woman, the series instead pairs her with Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a former football player with an over-the-top backstory of his own: His career was cut short by an abrupt injury, he’s now addicted to painkillers, and, oh yeah, his last name is Hogburn.
Ridiculous names are something of a theme, adding to the sense that the show is a costume party. Michael Shannon plays Napoleon Marconi, a schoolteacher who takes his family to Tranquillum to help them process a recent loss. (The Marconis are the only guests who aren’t paying market rate, having received a sort of need-based scholarship for emotional wounds.) Regina Hall plays Carmel Schneider, a mild-mannered mom repressing her considerable rage. Luke Evans plays the alliterative Lars Lee, a journalist who enjoys needling his fellow guests in their many sore spots. Even the roles without silly monikers don’t feel any truer to life. Samara Weaving’s Jessica Chandler is an influencer who meets every shallow stereotype of a conventionally attractive woman addicted to her phone; she is also, for some reason, married to a lottery winner, because the show apparently needs yet another extreme circumstance it doesn’t have time to delve into.
Again, it’s tempting to draw an unflattering comparison to The White Lotus, in which each guest represented a specific moral failing and each staff member a specific way to be wronged by one of those guests. Nine Perfect Strangers lacks a similar sense of purpose and simply throws an unmanageable amount of backstory at the wall to see what sticks. These characters don’t feel complementary; they simply feel sharpened to pierce Tranquillum’s, well, tranquility at the expense of their own coherence.
But Nine Perfect Strangers also falls short of its own standards, not just its peers’. There’s plenty to be said about wellness culture, whether as satire or melodrama: the inherent ugliness of putting a price on health; the idea of health as just another impossible standard to live up to; the jargon-like junk science of many miracle cures. Nine Perfect Strangers is so distracted by setting up theatrics that it doesn’t bother to make any of these statements. By cranking up the volume so high, the show succeeds only in quieting any compelling wellness-related criticism that could’ve been worthwhile.