Nicole Kidman is a TV star now. Of course she's a movie star as well, but in Kidman we have an A-List actress whose come to make some of the most significant acting choices of her career in the medium of television. After winning critical acclaim and an Emmy award for her work on the HBO series Big Little Lies, Kidman returned last year to a more mixed reception in the muder mystery The Undoing. Now she's back with her most mysterious television role yet as Masha, the Russian self-help guru at the center of a spa-retreat mystery in Hulu's new miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers.
Set to run eight episodes (with the first three dropping today), Strangers reunites Kidman with author Liane Moriarty, who also wrote Big Little Lies. And while Kidman, as the charismatic but secretive guru in charge of Tranquillum House, is the fulcrum point around which the show's characters and action unfold, Nine Perfect Strangers is, as its title suggests, an ensemble series about the people who have arrived at this remote retreat, each seeking to fix some deep wound in their various psyches.
There's Frances, played by Melissa McCarthy, an author on the verge of being dropped by her publishing house and who recently experienced an incredible betrayal in her romantic life. Along the road to Tranquillum, Frances comes across Tony (Bobby Cannavale), a former professional athlete who immediately gives her a hard time. Others at the retreat include: the Marconi family — Napoleon (Michael Shannon) and Heather (Asher Keddie), with their daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten) — each of whom are reeling from a recent tragedy and coping in incongruous ways; Carmel (Regina Hall), an outwardly reticent divorcee who's harboring some big-time anger issues; hot young couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving), who seem way too young and pretty to need a retreat like this; and finally Lars (Luke Evans) who's on the phone with a seemingly recent ex-boyfriend when we meet him and may be harboring some ulterior motives.
Ulterior motives are not in short supply at Tranquillum House. Masha seems to be a figure of some hushed renown whose reputation as a controversial healer precedes her first appearance in episode 1, while her guests are each skeptical to varying degrees about what her mysterious techniques can do for them. Frances is curious but more than a little distrustful. Napoleon is the most enthusiastic Marconi, probably due to the fact that he and his family were allowed to attend this pricey retreat on discount. Carmel is desperate for something to fix her broken spirit. And Lars seems content to sneer at everything and everyone.
In some ways, Nine Perfect Strangers is the victim of terrible timing, arriving right on the heels of HBO's The White Lotus, which earned rave reviews while treading on superficially similar terrain where a group of (mostly) wealthy people are thrown together at a tropical getaway. That's pretty much where the similarities end, though. The White Lotus was a sharp satire about wealth and class and race and privilege, while Nine Perfect Strangers makes no bones about its much more terrestrial ambitions. The title alone, which sounds like a lost Agatha Christie novel, gives the whole endeavour an air of mystery, and the more we learn about Masha's protocols, and her past — which is revealed in brief flashbacks that merely tease at something bigger and more sinister — the more mysterious the show gets (in this way, the show recalls another summer 2021 resort story, M. Night Shyamalan's Old).
Kidman's performance — and her accent, a kind of Russian-adjacent dialect that is wholly Kidmanian and should be allowed to flourish on its own terms — may attract the most attention, but the show's greatest triumph may be its ensemble. Melissa McCarthy has been in an in-between place as of late, floundering in subpar action blockbusters while excelling in smaller, more intimate fare like her Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me role. The latter required a kind of indie-film deglamorization (which fit that character and story perfectly), but it's great to see McCarthy flourishing here in a role that allows her to be pretty glamorous even as she's playing a character who could fall apart at any moment. McCarthy confidently steps up to the forefront of the ensemble and walks away with most of the group scenes she's in. She and Cannavale also share an incredible screen chemistry that sells their characters' initially combative relationship.
Elsewhere, Michael Shannon and Asher Keddie get some spotlight moments as grieving parents who can't seem to get on the same page about what their grief looks like, with each getting a moment to confront their own dark feelings. Also intriguing are Tiffany Boone and Manny Jacino as Delilah and Yao, who help run the day-to-day operations at Tranquillum and who each have their own relationships to Masha that run deeper and more complicated as the series moves forward. Their performances evolve and transform in ways that enhance the mysteries of the show while also connecting to the individual character-dramas of the different guests.
The more messy plottier aspects of Nine Perfect Strangers may end up grating on viewers who show up looking for Nicole Kidman's very own White Lotus, but it's intriguing to watch a character drama about people in crisis get depicted with the tone of a murder mystery (ironically, The White Lotus was a murder mystery that was not at all depicted as such). The best parts of Nine Perfect Strangers are when it offers its ensemble the chance to mix and mingle among each other, each character's own damage emerging through their reactions to each other, each person's story becoming more humane. Executive producer David E. Kelley is no stranger to large ensemble casts, and the group of actors here is served quite well. And although its answers to the questions about Masha's past will likely determine how well Nine Perfect Strangers is received in the end, the show is a superbly acted and an incredibly enjoyable mess as it unfolds.
Nine Perfect Strangers premieres today on Hulu, with new episodes dropping Wednesdays through September.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Nine Perfect Strangers, Hulu, Bobby Cannavale, Liane Moriarty, Manny Jacinto, Melissa McCarthy, Melvin Gregg, Michael Shannon, Nicole Kidman, Regina Hall, Samara Weaving, Tiffany Boone