It always raises an eyebrow whenever a bunch of A-list actors make up a TV cast. Like, it could be great and filled with wonderful performances and provocative narratives a la Westworld's first season. Or it could be a smokescreen to lure audiences in under the pretext that it's naturally going to be a riveting show because so-and-so and so-and-so are in it. The latter is how showrunners David E. Kelley and John Henry Butterworth's Nine Perfect Strangers gets you.
It's a marvel tactic, though, propelled even more by the fact that this isn't people like Melissa McCarthy, Nicole Kidman, and Michael Shannon in just any buzzy series. Audiences will essentially watch these privileged superstars flock toward the billion-dollar, enigmatic wellness industry that is largely catered to upper crust folks like that — and detonate as quickly as a Goop vagina-scented candle. It's like a train wreck reality show, but purely fictional with, oddly enough, less plot development.
The framework, based upon Liane Moriarty's bestselling book, is certainly there. Napoleon (Shannon) is a father and husband grieving the death of his son by suicide through forced smiles and boundless hope. He -- along with his wife, Heather (Asher Keddie), and their daughter Zoe, (Grace Van Patten), who are both barely hanging on by an emotional thread following the trauma -- are on a 10-day retreat at Tranquillum House, a health and wellness resort, for some much-needed R&R. Running the facility is the renowned Masha (Kidman, in her ice-princess glory), who is as cryptic as she is famous, ready to work whatever spiritual rejuvenation she sold them in the catalog.
Before we dig into her some more, let's get back to the other guests. There's also Carmel (Regina Hall, in arguably her most interesting role to date), a wound-too-tight mother whose husband left her for a younger woman, and she's been passive aggressively spinning out ever since. Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is an addict with his glory days, and healthy relationships with his children, long behind him.
Ben (Melvin Gregg) also barely has a handle on his aggression, which is a needless use of a racial stereotype. But anyway, he's at the resort with his model-esque wife, Jessica (Samara Weaving), who's been dealing with his outbursts and insecurities for who knows how long. She's just stoked to be at an Instagram-worthy getaway under any conditions. Francis (McCarthy) is a workaholic author who reluctantly checks into this great escape as her follow-up book is on its way to crashing and burning. And finally, as far as the guests go, there's Lars (Luke Evans), who's reeling a bit after a break-up. We learn early on, through a nasty text exchange, that Lars is so deplorable that his ex demands Lars stop reaching him by phone altogether.
It's the makings of a good, Big Brother-type drama where alliances could potentially be made just as easily as peace of mind flies right out the window. Because the irony here is that Tranquillum House is not the calming break from these characters' real worlds that they all hope it will be, and Masha isn't the mother of healing she presents herself as. If you're not hypnotized by Kidman's unidentifiable accent (she could really just have used her native Australian one without ruffling the character, but oh well), you see immediately that something is up with Masha.
Those already suspicious of the wellness industry may come to Nine Perfect Strangers with a sense of jadedness and endless side eyes. But because Kelley and Butterworth present characters with relatable problems, you want to trust that they've found a safe space to healthily process their issues. Much of that, though, is unfurled through their interactions with each other and with great tension. Something is afoot at this getaway, but the guests are mostly preoccupied with their own troubles and each other that they don't quite realize right away that they're not really getting the tender, loving care from the grand dame of healing that was advertised.
The series could have really stuck with the characters hashing out their issues on their own, though, because the more we learn about oddball Masha -- as well as her equally strange cohorts, Delilah (Tiffany Boone), and Yao (Manny Jacinto) -- the more ridiculous it gets. She's got trauma of her own that she's not at all working through and using her very lucrative brand, as well as her clients and Delilah and Yao (who know enough to make better decisions!), to mask it.
But as manipulative as she is, Nine Perfect Strangers doesn't seem to take any stance on the wellness industry or Masha, and doesn't have a whole lot to say about her clients either. In fact, sometimes the actors, like their characters, don't seem to know what piece they're playing in this puzzle, which makes watching the series befuddling and futile. The series isn't the surprising horror-esque piece it could be, and it doesn't offer a compelling statement on wellness or the people who buy into it. Nothing really happens at all here.
And maybe that's the point; the wellness industry is an empty, massively successful beast that goes unchecked. But unlike The White Lotus, a series that is similarly hollow and filled with mega-stars, it's not even entertaining enough to make up for the fact that it is thematically mute. What a waste.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
Nine Perfect Strangers premieres Wednesday, August 18 on Hulu.