After the cabin fever we all experienced in 2020, who could blame us for wanting to look to TV for a great escape: to the Hawaiian resort in HBO’s buzzworthy The White Lotus, to Fox’s better-than-you’d-think reboot of Fantasy Island, and now to the deceptively named Tranquillum House, a health-and-wellness retreat in the wilds of California (filmed in Australia) where Nine Perfect Strangers arrive to relieve their physical and often psychological pain. That was their first mistake.
“They come for the suffering,” Tranquillum’s ethereal yet sinister director Masha (Nicole Kidman as an inscrutable Russian doll) informs weepy star client Frances (sardonic Melissa McCarthy), a romance writer who’s lost her mojo and just wants a massage. Frances soon realizes this is no lie when asked to join a group exercise where they dig grave-like ditches and lie down as dirt is tossed upon them while Masha delivers a lecture about mortality, regret, and being rebirthed into a new life. (This is where I’d leave and try to find a Holiday Inn.)
From the writer (book author Liane Moriarty), executive producer (David E. Kelley) and star (Kidman) of Big Little Lies, this eight-part melodrama—six episodes made available for review—never quite settles on a tone, in part because the clientele is such a mixed bag of soap opera clichés: the grieving family (led by an unusually chipper Michael Shannon) coping with inexplicable loss, the insecure divorcée (Regina Hall) with an agenda, the child-phobic gay hunk (Luke Evans) with his own secret mission, and least of all, the young nouveau riche couple (Samara Weaving and Melvin Gregg) who’ve learned money can’t buy you happiness.
Is this a satire? (In which case it pales by comparison to The White Lotus.) A tragedy? Cautionary horror? Or maybe a love story, as down-on-herself Frances unexpectedly warms up to Tony (an enjoyably blustery Bobby Cannavale), a painkiller-addicted ex-athlete.
By the way, what’s the deal with Masha? This long-locked beauty has her own tormented backstory, which doesn’t really justify her manipulative mind games, which begins when she confiscates their self-indulgent contraband and then targets their emotional baggage by narcotizing her guests with specially tailored smoothies. (The extreme close-ups of a blender’s violently churning blades are a giveaway something’s up.) Masha truly believes her experimental protocol will change the world, and these are just the guinea pigs to prove it.
“Are we on some kind of reality show or something?” Tony bellows during an arduous outing. He wishes. Strangers, with its hallucinatory trippiness, is more about the surreal.
Nine Perfect Strangers, Series Premiere, Wednesday, August 18, Hulu