Wellness, one of the more cynical guests at Tranquillum House opines in Nine Perfect Strangers’ opening episode, is “just another construct to separate rich people from their money and get them to feel good about themselves.” That’s about as sharp as the commentary on the self-improvement industry gets in this adaptation of Liane ‘Big Little Lies’ Moriarty’s 2018 novel, which suffers from a case of unfortunate timing: it arrives in the shadow of HBO and Sky Atlantic’s The White Lotus, which manages its ‘rich people in freefall in a beautiful location’ schtick in a way that feels fresher and less heavy-handed.
Tranquillum House is an Architectural Digest-style glass box that’s home to a retreat so exclusive that, as Instagram clout-chaser and new arrival Jess (Samara Weaving) breathlessly explains, it’s “not on socials.” It’s the sort of place where a question like “is everybody here beautiful?” is met with the answer: “As a matter of fact, yes, including you.”
Joining Jess and husband Ben (Melvin Gregg) on the 10-day scheme designed to renew minds and bodies are the Marconis, a family trying to reckon with the death of their son, and quiet, eager-to-please divorcée Carmel (Regina Hall). Grouchy and standoffish Tony (Bobby Cannavale), spiky investigative journalist Lars (Luke Evans) and romance novelist Frances (Melissa McCarthy), who is smarting from the double whammy of a failed relationship and a rejected manuscript, bring the total to nine.
For various reasons relating to past traumas that unspool throughout the series, they have all come to worship at the court of new age guru Masha, played by Nicole Kidman as a sort of Galadriel of wellness, complete with waist-length blonde wig and swishy white gowns. A former frazzled CEO (we see her in flashbacks, with far less luxuriant hair) whose near-death experience prompted a pivot to the business of rest and relaxation, her pronouncements - all delivered in an eastern European accent that comes in fits and starts - range from generically comforting to deeply ominous (“I mean to f**k with all of you!”).
Her guests know that they have signed up for something a bit more extreme than whale music and fluffy dressing gowns, but few of them are prepared for the unadulterated weirdness of Masha’s “protocols.” Digging graves (and then lying in them) is on the itinerary, along with a whole host of more ethically dubious practices.
Moriarty’s original story already had enough twists and turns to make the series soapily compelling, but screenwriters David E. Kelley (of BLL and The Undoing fame) and John Henry Butterworth have thrown in a number of side plots (threatening texts targeting Masha, darker, amped-up backstories for some of the guests) that often seem superfluous. Carmel’s character feels especially oddly handled (one plot reveal about her connection to Tranquillum lands with a thud) but Hall does her best with the uneven material.
Taken in isolation, each star turn is entertaining or intriguing in its own right (Grace van Patten and Asher Keddie are especially good as a mother and daughter finding different ways to grieve), but these performances don’t always gel, especially in the earlier episodes when the characters are yet to unburden themselves of their sympathy-inducing backstories.
Kidman, meanwhile, is clearly having a grand old time as the increasingly unhinged Masha, bathed in an otherworldly glow. It’s hardly her most subtle work, but she steals every scene with the sheer force of her weirdness.
The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers is on Amazon Prime Video from August 20 with new episodes launching weekly