Based on the New York Times best-seller by Liane Moriarty, Nine Perfect Strangers is set at an elite health and wellness resort in the mountains of California. For 10 days, nine clients are selected to join guru Masha (Nicole Kidman) for a time of inner healing and transformation. Stressed out from the burdens of urban life (and life in general), the strangers gather together to find hope and healing for their tired minds and bodies. However, as Masha’s methods become increasingly invasive and personal, so too must her clients decide if the treatment is worth the potential cure.
Nine Perfect Strangers is a weird and wild exploration of the darkness that we all keep underneath the surface. Directed by Johnathan Levine, the series seeks to deal with the psychology of trauma (and the traumas of psychology). Set amidst the stunning backdrop of Australia (subbing for California), Strangers highlights the tranquility of nature yet also uncovers the turmoil from urban life. In essence, despite the serenity of the surroundings, Levine’s uses the personal struggles of his characters to swirl within them with a chaotic rage.
Certainly, there are aspects of the series that simply don’t work. For example, without giving any spoilers, a twist that begins to explain why characters are having their spiritual encounters is particularly strange (and unethical) to say the least. Even so, despite its flaws, Strangers strangely keeps you watching. Build upon an intriguing premise and mysterious setting, Strangers operates on a slow build that unravels its secrets at the right pace.
In some ways, Strangers is reminiscent of ABC’s classic drama Lost, a series which also balanced psychological and mystical components. When most people remember Lost, they usually focus on elements like the ‘smoke monster’ or ‘the hatch’. However, that was not what made the show work so well (and arguably what killed the series). Instead, the most intriguing aspects of that show were always the backstories of its characters and their influence on the present, rather than the more supernatural elements that influenced events. The real story to that series was watching people deal with the tragic events of their past and thankfully, Strangers also keeps its eye firmly on its characters.
While not all nine strangers receive equal investment from the script, there’s something fascinating about their individual arcs and performances that makes this a compelling watch. Strong chemistry between Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale make them an intriguing ‘will they/won’t they’ couple. A surprisingly muted but enthusiastic performance by Michael Shannon adds to the complexities of his family’s compelling backstory. Even Nicole Kidman’s Masha maintains enough mystery in her own flexible morals to keep the viewer interested.
And Kidman’s Masha really is the lynchpin to the series. As the evil (or is she?) mastermind to the resort, Masha is portrayed as both guru and maniac. Although she is more than willing to play fast and loose with the emotional well-being of her clients and staff, there also appears to be a method to her madness that somehow makes her seem disarming. Having specifically chosen her applicants based on their psychological profiles, Masha uses their traumas in ways to play them off of one another in their own journey towards healing. Although their arcs are entirely separate from one another, Masha sees aspects within them that helps both expose their flaws and enhance the healing of others.
In this way, Strangers emphasizes the importance of the fullness of everyone’s story. Each one of the resorts clients have come to this space in desperation, looking for some form of hope. Driven by secrets that remain buried deeply within them, their sufferings have crushed their spirits. Broken and battered by the pain of life, every character sees this resort as their last resort as they attempt to come to grips with their own inability to achieve the perfection that they expect of themselves. However, although they could not be more different, each of their stories remains important and valuable.
As their internal wounds are exposed by Masha’s bizarre teachings and tactics, so too are they able to face the pain which has plagued them for so long. As such, the purpose of this retreat is not merely to tell them that ‘everything will be okay’. Instead, it is about owning their darkness as an important part of their journey and accepting the truths that they deny. For Masha, hope lies in our ability to face our darkness and own it.
To her, healing is about wholeness and hurt has its place within that.
Wild and mysterious, Nine Perfect Strangers is far from a perfect series. Admittedly though, its strong performances and enigmatic atmosphere make it a compelling watch. While Masha’s methods may border on a lawsuit at times, so too does she prove that these strangers do not need to be perfect. They merely need to understand themselves more fully in order to find peace.
Nine Perfect Strangers is available on Hulu on Wednesday, August 18th, 2021.