Was “Nine Perfect Strangers” Written By An Algorithm?
The new Hulu drama has everything going for it, which makes its failures even more striking.
The first time I heard the term “prestige television” was in 2000, around the middle of The Sopranos’ run. It was a new concept — that TV could be as good as movies, that it could be as serious, as glossy, and as eloquent. Alas, how old I have become (in television years); now, almost everything bears prestige hallmarks, from football dramas on Netflix to adaptations of popular fiction to those ASMR ads for beer. (Honestly, those ads are doing a lot of heavy lifting for Michelob Ultra, absolutely no one’s first choice of beveragino.)
Prestige television is omnipresent at this point. It sometimes seems like there’s a race to be The Most Serious Television Show, to pull off the most high-concept execution of a story, with the most contemporary relevance, gorgeous visuals, stirring soundtrack, moody opening credits, and three to five very famous actors who are daring to stoop to the gutters of television. The Undoing, The White Lotus, The Flight Attendant, Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit — we watch them all.
At first, Nine Perfect Strangers looks like yet another prestige offering. It stars Nicole Kidman (always a tell) and several other big-name actors. It’s an adaptation of another novel by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, and boy, does it feel like it: There's a stunning set and white ladies in caftans swanning around in their misery. But unlike some of its predecessors, the eight-episode drama is trash in prestige clothing. It seems to have been written by an algorithm that fed on every critically successful drama of the last 20 years, then spat out a meandering, expository, and convoluted approximation. A major part of its allure is in its marketing, the presupposition that it has to be good because it looks like great shows that came before it and because it has a cast that absolutely slaps. Yet Nine Perfect Strangers is unequivocally and almost unabashedly bad; I will watch every second of it, probably twice.
In her most wooden role yet, Nicole Kidman plays Masha, a health-and-wellness guru tending to the lost souls who have come to her lavish retreat in the woods of California, assisted by staffers Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone). There’s influencer Jessica (Samara Weaving) and her husband, Ben (Melvin Gregg), who seems to have lost any interest in his wife. Zoe (Grace Van Patten) comes with her parents, Napoleon (a very unnerving Michael Shannon, who describes a breakfast smoothie as “the big yum-yum”) and Heather (Asher Keddie), after a mysterious loss. Frances (Melissa McCarthy) is a grouchy, washed-up author who hates/loves pain pill addict Tony (Bobby Cannavale). Meanwhile, single mom Carmel (Regina Hall) chirpily declares how excited she is to be here at any opportunity, despite seeming to be at her emotional brink. Lars (Luke Evans) seems to be hiding...something. It looks like The White Lotus, feels like The Undoing, and sounds like someone dropped a dictionary into the garbage disposal and just used whatever survived the mechanical gnawing.
Nine Perfect Strangers has everything going for it, which makes its failures even more striking. The cast is incredible and, as is law, I will watch anything where Bobby Cannavale so much as gets near a swimming pool. Creator and producer David E. Kelley also made, among other series, Big Little Lies, Ally McBeal, and The Undoing. Kidman reportedly went full method during production, staying in character throughout — who doesn’t want to deal with a 5’11" vaguely Russian woman in an unwashed Galadriel wig for six months during a pandemic?
Watching this series feels a little bit like watching The Polar Express. I guess it’s OK, but how can I know for sure if I can’t get past the uncanny valley of the characters, how half-formed they are: They're less real people than the ideas of people. Characters speak to each other in stilted sentences, offering up not only their secrets (which they do readily and on cue) but also their exact desires and motivations, none of which is surprising in the least. An influencer hates her body and can’t get her husband to pay attention to her the way the internet does. Once-successful people are insecure about being less successful. A woman is angry about being cast aside. A former tough guy can’t admit he’s reliant on his pain meds.
The show takes every cliché from every drama. Perhaps that's why it's so oddly watchable. “I think we’re all obsessed with being a little better than we were yesterday,” McCarthy says to one of the other guests. “A little less lousy, a little less in the toilet. Isn’t that the essence of life?”
Insofar as facsimiles go, Nine Perfect Strangers will fill the Big Little Lies–shaped hole in your heart. It’s an ensemble drama about (mostly) rich white people who cannot help themselves and need some woo-woo ethereal nonsense to help them instead. It’s structured in the familiar way a lot of prestige miniseries are, with a group of vaguely compelling characters that’s so big you never have to spend too much time with one person, and thus, will never truly get bored of them. Thematically, it checks every box, from teenage suicide to middle-aged career crisis to the pervasiveness of wellness culture. And Masha spends much of the show brushing off mysterious death threats, guaranteeing the inherent addictiveness of a murder mystery, even if the payoff is unlikely to fulfill.
The show is bad, yes, but quality doesn’t have to be the point of every show. Sometimes all you need is something you can put on while doing the laundry, patting yourself on the back because at least you’re not watching Season 3 of Kitchen Nightmares for the sixth time while you idle through your fourth (fifth?) pandemic wall. Its predictable structure and familiar faces are all you need to keep coming back week after week, half-watching it just enough to register a few plotlines. All I ask is to see Manny Jacinto’s jawline grapple with his psychological demons while I fantasize about jetting off to a forest paradise with individual plunge pools. Nine Perfect Strangers also comes at a perfect time: the end of summer, right before fall shows return, following on the heels of a few notable and delightful prestige dramas.
But don’t expect Nine Perfect Strangers to pull off what its predecessors did. Big Little Lies and The White Lotus were satisfying and gripping, perfect for binge-watching or slow-drip viewing. Their characters were compelling and upsetting, frustrating and familiar. Nine Perfect Strangers is the Diet Pepsi of the prestige television landscape; it seems to bear the same markers of its brethren, but god, when you suck it back, does it ever taste like shit.
Still, just as I watched all the other shows about rich white people being rich and white (sounds nice, honestly), I will finish this too. For the remainder of this season — and whatever future seasons Hulu decides to wring out of this dry-ass cloth — I’ll tune in to every episode, rapt yet irritated. The characters will continue to be both hollow and annoying; the metaphors basic and the flashbacks disorienting. But at this point, as a dedicated television viewer, or maybe at this point in a pandemic that continues to force me to remain a dedicated television viewer, I don’t actually need the real thing. A fraud will do just fine. ●