Nine Perfect Strangers

1 out of 5

Created by: David E. Kelley

Nine Perfect Strangers is not unwatchable, and it’s not necessarily wholly without value – some good actors, some interesting ideas – which is what a one-star rating would generally suggest to me. However, it is almost insultingly trite, and that triteness ruins those slightest positives, as well as the ‘so bad it’s good’ trainwreck of wondering if the show’s characters will continue to make stupid decisions (they do) and if the show’s scenarios will continue to develop in the most obnoxious fashions (they do); in short: nothing actually ends up making the show worth its runtime.

David E. Kelley has brought along his recent penchant for sultry pop songs and surreal visuals for the show’s opening title sequence; he’s also brought along Nicole Kidman. In his (many) endeavors of late, I’ve been able to forgive when a series steps out of bounds as Kelley may only be peripherally involved – as a creator and a first episode writer, then handing over the reins. But, woof, he wrote or cowrote the majority of these eight episodes, and they are cookie cutter psychology pap, even lacking – near from the start – the plot hooks that normally making his shows bingey. So the title sequence seems even more of a glossy front than usual, and Kidman seems inserted just so we can round out a lot of names in an ensemble cast – Michael Shannon, Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale – as I can’t say she really imbues her role with much of note. (And I say this as a general fan of the actress.)

The problem really is the material, though. Which concerns Masha’s (Kidman) wellness center, some rich to-do that only accepts hand-picked clientele – our 9 perfect strangers, this time around – and at which she’s fended off some controversy, but also had much success in renewing her guests’ lives. I mean, I guess. The show builds up the joint with this supposed prestige – and Masha as this goddess-like presence – but then also plays it, and her, like a big mystery and secret. The first episode does the round of intros, dropping hints of sad backstories and pitting enemies-who-will-inevitably-be-lovers against one another, and the personality sketches we’re given are cut from some standard drama template: a failed romance-novel writer; a drug-addicted ex-sports star; a jaded social media influencer. Using such templates isn’t a crime, but writing dialogue exactly from those same templates is – getting to play a part in a Kelley production with some well-regarded actors would’ve attracted me to the part as well, but there’s only so much you can do with the stiffest and most stereotypical of roles.

The bulk of our 9 strangers’ journeys – Masha’s surprise treatment is micro-dosing people, and I guess that’s the progressive hook – mostly end up centering around the Marconi family (Shannon, Asher Keddie, and Grace Van Patten), and this is where the seeds for the triteness are borne: none of the other characters actually end up mattering. There is no “secret” to why everyone was brought together – there’s suggested to be, and maybe there are some minor revelations regarding that, but they are of zero importance in the long run. Stripped down to focus on the Marconis, the show may’ve been a little stronger, but it instead makes a big deal about the ensemble, and tries to blanket their drama with the external drama of trouble-beneath-the-surface for how Masha runs her center – questionable practices; employee disagreements; etc. – and then all of this is swept away with one scene or sentence. We literally wrap up all of the non-Marconi storylines with putting everyone in a room and making them say some concluding statements that are only barely supported by the preceding episodes.

It’s almost embarrassing to watch these actors wasted on empty roles, waiting for their first-draft dialogue to turn into something more; for that forced plot point to actually develop into something at least one layer deeper than surface. But it never happens, and the way the series tamps a conclusion on everything with a bow is the final insult.