Trauma is everywhere these days—the concept even more, somehow, than the experience. A society ravaged by a lethal virus, threatened by climate crisis, fractured by violence and hate, we seek comfort in pop culture. And pop culture has spent the past decade in an age of deep backstory. The motivations of franchise heroes and especially villains, from the Joker to Killmonger to Cruella de Vil, have been rendered comprehensible through excavations of formative trauma, regardless of whether their stories merit that level of psychological detail.
Far rarer than the invocation of trauma to explain, often glibly, how a broken character got to be the way they are is the exploration of how—outside of some gallant display of supernatural powers—such characters might reconstruct themselves. The latter is a tougher journey to take, one that keeps our mental health system overwhelmed. It’s also the subject of Nine Perfect Strangers, a polished, enjoyable, virtuosically acted, but also frustratingly slow, superficial and uneven extended bottle episode of a prestige miniseries that premieres Aug. 18 on Hulu.
It arrives on a wave of next-Big-Little-Lies hype. The shows share a star in Nicole Kidman, a creator in David E. Kelley and a mastermind in Liane Moriarty, who wrote the novels on which each is based. (Between Kidman and Kelley’s The Undoing, Lies season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Sharp Objects and Reese Witherspoon’s literary adaptation Little Fires Everywhere, “the next Big Little Lies“ has become a sub-genre unto itself.) Like its predecessor, Strangers thrives on character-driven suspense and boasts one of TV’s most impressive ensemble casts. Joining Kidman on the marquee are Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Regina Hall, Bobby Cannavale and Luke Evans, with plenty of space left over for talented up-and-comers like The Good Place alum Manny Jacinto, Samara Weaving (Hollywood) and Melvin Gregg (Snowfall).
But if Strangers was cut from a pattern set by Lies, its premise shares more with HBO’s current sleeper hit about rich people on vacation, The White Lotus. We meet the nine strangers as they travel to Tranquillum House, a mysterious, high-end California wellness resort that promises miraculous transformations. McCarthy’s Frances, a famous romance novelist, has been catfished out of a huge sum of money and arrives reeling from news that her publisher hates her new book so much, it’s talking about buying out her contract. She immediately clashes, but in a cute, will-they-or-won’t-they way, with Tony (Cannavale), a crotchety opioid addict. Influencer Jessica (Weaving) and husband Ben (Gregg) need to rekindle their relationship. Chatty on the surface but palpably unstable not far below it, Carmel (Hall) is the wild card. Inevitably, there’s also a cynical undercover reporter, Evans’ Lars, preparing to write an exposé on Tranquillum.
Among this well-heeled bunch, the Marconis, a middle-class family who’ve suffered a great loss, are the scholarship students. Patriarch Napoleon (Shannon in extreme normcore mode) is a disconcertingly upbeat, pragmatic high-school teacher and the kind of quintessential dad who spends whole road-trips reciting facts about the destination. “This place has won two global wellness awards: mental wellness and social impact,” he gushes in the show’s opening scene, “though the latter might’ve been an honorable mention.” But his wife Heather (Asher Keddie, a standout in last year’s Stateless) and 20-year-old daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten from Maniac) are hurting and, predictably, Napoleon’s straight-arrow cheer conceals his own surfeit of pain.
Chipping away at this and many other false exteriors is Tranquillum’s impish, manipulative, inconsistently Russian-accented founder, Masha (Kidman), who soon reveals a traumatic backstory of her own. Kidman clearly had a ball playing this eccentric, mercurial woman, who chooses each cohort of guests for maximum productive friction, then subjects them to a bizarre regimen of surveillance, medication, fasting and group activities that range from potato-sack races to digging their own graves so as to lie in them and imagine themselves dead. The question is less whether she’s a true believer in what she’s selling—she is—than how far she’s willing to go to prove her theories. In that sense, Masha remains a black box to even her most trusted employees, Yao (Jacinto, all performative zen calm) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone of Hunters), a couple whose relationship with their boss is more complicated than it appears.
As in most stories that bring strangers together on neutral ground, everyone has a secret or three. The trouble is, few of these revelations succeed in building suspense. Early episodes unfold at such a languorous pace that you can forget the story is supposed to have any stakes at all. When they are finally raised to an intriguing degree, in the last of the six episodes (out of eight total) sent for review, it just feels too late to make up so much momentum.
Happily, the cast picks up much of the slack, making Strangers quite watchable despite its aimlessness. Napoleon is a character ripped from real life, and Shannon’s uniquely intense presence elevates him from milquetoast to psychological enigma, whether he’s delivering an intoxicated monologue or singing Olivia Newton-John’s “You’re the One That I Want” part in his skivvies. Passive-aggressive, self-doubting Frances and depressive, closed-off Tony fit together like two jagged rocks, each sanding down the other’s prickly edges. (It’s always nice to see McCarthy, who has such great range, in a role that doesn’t lean hard on physical comedy.) Hall is another highlight, endowing an underwritten woman-scorned character with some real pathos.
But at least half of Tranquillum’s guests feel too generic to gain much depth through strong performances, and that ensures that their confrontations with trauma disappointingly shallow as well. While some characters, like Ben and Zoe, are plot drivers rather than personalities, others never evolve into anything more than stereotypes. Lars’ bitterness supposedly stems from growing up a gay outsider. Pretty Jessica obsesses over her looks—and her Instagram likes. These are characters we’ve seen before, given no additional depth by workmanlike scripts. The White Lotus broke out because it’s such a slow burn, as tensions roiling beneath the resort’s idyllic exterior filter up to the service in clever, telling, socially astute ways. Nine Perfect Strangers has a similarly attractive surface. Unfortunately, in this case, what you see is all you get.
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