Season 1 of Big Little Lies was devastating, incredibly well written and undeniably stylish. While season 2 lost some of that same charm, it remained a delightful and hard-hitting melodrama nonetheless.
Given the acclaim that show received, it was always going to be difficult to follow that. Adapted from talented novelist Liane Moriarty (who also wrote Big Little Lies), Nine Perfect Strangers is undoubtedly going to be compared to HBO’s stunning series.
There are definite similarities between the two and Hulu’s latest series certainly features some incredible highs. However, it also has some very noticeable patches of dull mediocrity too. Despite some obvious plot pitfalls, this is still solid television and well worth watching.
The story here revolves around nine “perfect” strangers selected to join an exclusive wellness resort called Tranquillum. Whether it be weight loss, marriage counselling or dealing with grief, each of these guys and gals carry a heavy briefcase of baggage that’s soon opened and explored over the 8 episodes.
Overseeing this project is the mysterious Masha, a woman with her own secrets and reasons for pushing her project forwards. Again, no spoilers here but her past is fascinating and devastating in equal doses.
Joining her for this 10 day program are a couple in mourning. A tragedy in the past casts a black cloud over Heather and Napoleon’s relationship, with daughter Zoe along for the ride.
Novelist Francis has her own stresses in life, with a man named Paul causing a never-ending headache for her. There’s also prickly Tony, who has an equally messed up past that’s unpacked across several devastating reveals in the season.
Sceptic Lars is the proverbial spoon of the group; his purpose early on is to stir things up – and he does a great job of it. Quiet and reserved Carmel doesn’t feature too prominently early on but later episodes show she too has some trauma in her life that she needs to work through.
Finally, there’s Ben and Jessica who have relationship problems. This is, again, explained and explored over the show’s run-time.
With so many characters, Nine Perfect Strangers sometimes buckles under the weight of juggling these different stories. Francis and Tony are given the lion’s share of the run-time while Napoleon and his family become an ever-increasing dominant thread of the show.
That’s hardly surprising given what Big Little Lies tackled but interesting characters like Carmel or Lars are relegated to background figures with tiny snippets of background. Now, for spoiler purposes I won’t divulge what their intentions are but there’s more than meets the eye to these players.
The brief snippets of background we get are absolutely fascinating but it’s barely examined beyond surface level flashbacks or brief stints of one on one sessions with Masha.
Likewise, Ben and Jessica feature heavily during the opening two chapters and then sort of fade into obscurity late on, acting as fodder for Carmel to project her own insecurities and issues from.
Now, the topics and themes here are pretty heavy and the show does use light bites of humour for levity. Sometimes this works quite well, especially early on, but during episode 5 the humour is a little too overbearing, with some slapstick thrown in that doesn’t quite work. It’s a minor gripe but one that’s worth pointing out.
There is a central mystery to all this though, involving threatening texts to Masha, a shady history involving Tranquillum as a whole and question marks around why these individuals were selected to be participants. It’s all pretty tasty material and the show does a good job leaning into this, even if the later chapters add more humour and fantastical elements than they perhaps should.
While Nicole Kidman will probably get the plaudits, and Michael Shannon for his role as Napoleon, it’s actually Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale who are the real stars of the show.
McCarthy is much more restrained here, showing a much deeper side to her character rather than phoning it in with the same half-baked comedy role we’ve seen every year since Ghostbusters. She was great in Gilmore Girls and it’s welcome to see her return to her dramatic roots.
Given the Stacked cast and promise behind this, going in with high expectations of a Big Little Lies 2 will undoubtedly leave you disappointed. The show is not without its problems but there’s a great tone and atmosphere clinging to this to keep you watching until the end.
Nine Perfect Strangers is a little too busy for its own good, and its tone doesn’t quite balance evenly throughout, but the plates that remain spinning at the end make for a wholly satisfying watch.
Verdict - 7.5/10