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The truth within – ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’

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Haven’t you ever thought that the self-help and wellness realm is just a little … sinister?

We live in a world where the notion of improving one’s health – physical, emotional or otherwise – has become a billion-dollar industry. Yet we ALSO live in a world where, if there’s a way to make money through duplicitous and/or unsavory means, someone will do so.

Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing a lot of creative work that addresses that particular slice of the self-actualization pie.

The latest offering along those lines is “Nine Perfect Strangers,” the new limited series from Hulu. Created by John Henry Butterworth and television icon David E. Kelley and based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty, the show offers a look at a secretive high-end wellness retreat that – surprise! – might be considerably more than it appears to be.

With an absolutely stacked cast – Nicole Kidman leads the way, but there are exceptional talents scattered all over the call sheet – and a setting that looks both bucolic and expensive, the show has a lot going for it. And when you toss some weird and mysterious narrative developments into the mix, well … you’ve got something.

I’ll put it this way: for the most part, “Nine Perfect Strangers” gets the dosage just right.

Tranquillum is a high-end health and wellness resort, the sort of place that doesn’t need to advertise because word-of-mouth is all it needs to attract the type of well-heeled clientele that can afford its services. Periodically, groups will descend on Tranquillum for a 10-day journey of healing and self-discovery and *insert New Age-y cliché here*, all in hopes of receiving the coveted wisdom of the retreat’s mysterious leader.

The current group is as follows:

Francis (Melissa McCarthy) is a former best-selling author who is dealing with the one-two punch of a floundering career and a failed relationship. Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is a former athlete dealing with an assortment of personal demons. Married couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving) have lost their connection and are unsure of how to find it again.

Carmel (Regina Hall) is a quiet woman whose seemingly innocuous hopes for the retreat mask something darker. Lars (Luke Evans) is a cynic dealing with a breakup; his motivations for being here are questionable. And the Marconi family – Napoleon (Michael Shannon), Heather (Asher Keddie) and Zoe (Grace Van Patten) – are hoping to find their way back in the aftermath of a familial tragedy.

The guru at the center of Tranquillum is a mysterious Russian woman known only as Masha (Nicole Kidman); Masha claims that a near-death experience gave her new understanding and awareness about the world around her. While she mostly remains at a distance from the visitors, guides like Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Deliliah (Tiffany Boone) help steer the nine members of the group through the Tranquillum process.

The nine members of the group begin their respective journeys with varying degrees of optimism, but as the days pass, each of them begins to connect with the fundamental issues that brought them to this place. However, even as that process is playing out, mysteries begin to pile up – questions about Masha’s past, about her methods, even about the truths behind Tranquillum itself – with each member of the group left to decide for themselves just what they’re going to get from this experience … if anything at all.

“Nine Perfect Strangers” unspools its narrative in fits and starts; that unsteady gait mimics the piecemeal progress that comes with self-improvement. But while that’s a thematic fit, it means that there’s a bit of an unevenness to each episode, with story being parceled out at differing paces.

The sheer number of characters presents some issues as well; when you’ve got so many individuals to track, the balance is difficult to maintain. For the most part, “Nine Perfect Strangers” manages to carve out enough time for all involved, as well as establish the web of interpersonal connections that springs up between the guests and the staff. Some of these dynamics are clearer and stronger than others, but that’s the nature of the beast – waxing and waning connections are part of the human condition.

The show takes some dark turns, exploring the ramifications that come from monetizing this sort of personal exploration. It also digs into the notion that in some cases, turning one’s well-being over to an outside entity only serves to paper over the underlying concerns, rather than addressing them. It’s a game – and a profitable one at that, no matter how seemingly altruistic the pertinent motivations might appear.

Of course, when you have a cast this top-to-bottom talented, you’ve got a fair amount of wiggle room. Kidman’s enigmatic presence hangs over it all, an off-kilter Russian Gwyneth Paltrow – Goop, only in Cyrillic. McCarthy keeps her anger while removing much (but not all) of the comedy; Cannavale bottles up his pain, letting it out only in snide asides or biting rage. Shannon is a cargo-shorted avatar of Dadly optimism, counterbalanced by the tight-lipped Keddie and the just-trying-to-get-along Van Patten. Hall is smiling constantly, but her eyes rarely are. Evans finds a place between snide and secretive that works well; Gregg and especially Weaving do a great job of evoking an internet-age vacancy. Jacinto and Boone both combine utter commitment to the cause and internal strife, though they each take different paths to get there.

“Nine Perfect Strangers” is a slow burn of a show, one that invites you to lean into the deliberate pacing. In many ways, the viewer is as much a guest at Tranquillum as the characters they’re watching; we have more information than they do, but even then, we’re far from knowing everything. The path to enlightenment is a checkered one, marked with detours, obstacles and pitfalls. One never knows when one’s own truth might emerge from the shadows – Tranquillum and the people there hope only to ensure your readiness when it does.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 August 2021 07:53

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