It’s always amusing when two TV shows pop up at the same time with the same basic concept… but the differences can also be instructive. After The White Lotus premiered just last month on HBO, now Hulu’s new drama Nine Perfect Strangers also follows a crew of mismatched strangers as they get more than they bargained for on an idyllic resort getaway.
But while The White Lotus explores this concept with subtle, character-based humor, Nine Perfect Strangers — premiering Wednesday, Aug. 18; I’ve seen the first four episodes — opts for a clumpy mix of broad comedy, soppy drama and psychological horror that borders on campy. If The White Lotus is 30 Rock, then Nine Perfect Strangers is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: not “good,” exactly, and definitely way overblown, but still watchable in its own strange way.
It has a stellar pedigree, to be sure, coming from Big Little Lies book author Liane Moriarty, showrunner David E. Kelley and star Nicole Kidman. (It even has moody, evocative opening credits, just like BLL.) Plus, it’s assembled an all-star cast, including Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Regina Hall and Bobby Cannavale — any one of whom would make a TV show worth watching. But as talented as these actors are, the material they’re given here is flimsy and threadbare. It’s an awkward blend of personalities and tones that never meshes together; the actors seem to be acting on two or three different shows, at least.
The story centers on a group of unsuspecting guests who arrive at a luxurious New Age retreat called Tranquillum that’s tucked away in the California woods. They’re all here to heal different emotional wounds — though most of them struggle to leave their phones behind — and they mostly start out hopeful and open to the resort’s odd quirks. (There’s a fine line between Zen-like serenity and cultish obedience, and Tranquillum walks right up to the edge of that line.) Before long, though, the guests descend into hostile bickering and paranoia, which isn’t very Zen of them. There’s a creeping sense of dread here, too: Why do they need to draw so much blood from the guests? And what’s in those smoothies, anyway?
Then we meet Masha, the mysterious Russian guru who runs the resort and is played by Kidman in what has to be one of the strangest TV performances of the year. Masha is an ethereal blonde wisp with a decidedly confrontational approach to therapy and an accent that’s all over the map — from Moscow to Sydney and back again, sometimes within the same sentence. Her tough-love therapy tactics are borderline comical, and I found myself wishing the show would just tip over into full-blown, ridiculous camp during her scenes. (Kidman is clearly up for it!) But then we, along with the Tranquillum guests, are also served up lots of self-improvement clichés that are oddly taken at face value, leading to corny, unearned epiphanies. Nine Perfect Strangers seems to want to skewer but also honor the New Age lifestyle at the same time, and neither approach fully lands.
It’s a pleasure just to see so many good actors on screen — The Good Place‘s Manny Jacinto plays a Buddhist monk! He is Jianyu after all! — but it’s frustrating to watch their efforts be wasted. McCarthy plays Frances, a self-loathing romance novelist on the skids and prone to outbursts, and she soaks up a lot of screen time, but the character never quite comes into focus. Shannon is appealingly goofy as “chronically loquacious” dad Napoleon, Hall hints at years of bottled-up rage as frazzled mom Carmel, and Cannavale does his usual foulmouthed hothead act as Tony. But the characters are too thinly drawn to connect with, and there are too many of them running around here to dig too deeply into any one of them.
Of all the different shows Nine Perfect Strangers is, I most wanted to watch the one where a deranged Nicole Kidman runs a health spa with nefarious intentions. But alas, that show is crammed in here along with several others that don’t work nearly as well — or at least aren’t nearly as fun. Kelley and Moriarty lampooned rich people’s problems so precisely in Big Little Lies, it’s a little surprising to watch them stumble so badly here. But they do. The White Lotus is already in talks to return for a second season, and that’s good news indeed. But I think I’ll be cutting my stay with Nine Perfect Strangers short.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Despite a great cast and some fun elements, Nine Prefect Strangers is a messy mix of comedy, drama, horror and camp.