Literally called Tranquillum, there's an expensive wellness retreat, which, by means of experimental techniques, apparently heals you. Obnoxiously enough, the program is called 'Us 2.0'. Add to that the fact that it's got no social media presence, and customers only discover it through word of mouth. Moreover, the mysterious Russian woman who runs the place apparently 'vets' the customers, and decides which nine people to admit at a go. So, a unique cocktail of insecurities, damage, trauma and dysfunction is concocted. As shady as it all sounds, the place has a charming vibrancy about it, and you feel inclined to believe all you've heard about its capability to transform and heal you.
At the risk of sounding cliché, nothing is as it seems. Questionable medical practices, morally dubious methods of therapy, a definitely disturbing lack of transparency, and a disconcerting amount of hostility, makes that same serene atmosphere feel extremely volatile, about to explode itself and your sanity to smithereens, any moment. It doesn't even take long for that to happen, and soon enough, everyone's judging each other, and arguing with no intention of improving. The nonchalance of the host, who always has this phoney smile on her face, is possibly the most annoying thing about it all. She seems to be opening them to the chaos, so they introspect, but it doesn't feel healthy at all.
As a premise to a story that explores how traumatised people see the world and handle their existence, it sounds almost like a gold mine. The potential is infinite, with the interesting mix of issues and personalities who've been brought together at Tranquillum. The personality of the host, who is quite obviously troubled herself, adds to the intrigue, with the gradually growing realisation that she's doing it as much for herself, as for her 'patients'. However, instead of wallowing in the muck, and coming up with an insightful take on the journey towards healing, Nine Perfect Strangers, wanders off to a concrete conclusion, its potential left largely untapped, and you left feeling grossly unsatisfied.
Of course there are some very memorable conversations, and the moments of genuine growth do come across well. You'll definitely have some things to take from it, but on the whole, the story doesn't do justice to its set-up. Those who might relate with even one of the nine strangers, will feel stranded if they approach the thing personally. From discussing their troubles in one episode, and having psychedelic visualisations of them in the other, to suddenly feeling they understand themselves because of retrospection done under the impression of being trapped in a burning building, it all happens too quickly. The trauma is presented beautifully and accurately, but it's sorted very poorly.
If one looks beyond the story, the show is definitely not going to disappoint, however. Everyone is fabulous with their performance. The only flaw is Nicole Kidman's Russian accent. It's very clearly an acquired one. Otherwise, she's as good as always. Between Melissa McCarthy's powerful blend of delightful and distraught, Michael Shannon's compelling deconstruction of toxic positivity, Bobby Cannavale's inspiring reconstruction from drugs and damage, Samara Weaving's unbelievable transformation for this role, Luke Evans' brilliant composure, Asher Keddie's haunting healing from trauma and Regina King's breathtaking portrayal of becoming unhinged, you can't decide who's best.
The cinematography is unremarkable and even awkward at times. There's some interesting work with macro lens, and close-ups of nature, and of fruits being churned into smoothies, but overall, the camera-work is average. There are a few beautiful stills, mainly owing to the picturesque setting. However, the facial close-ups don't do what they're supposed to. Weird angles that just offset the mood instead of accentuating the discomfort, when a character is feeling unsettled, is the biggest flaw with facial photography. Other than that, there's no obvious flaw, but given the power of the material, the show could have been a lot more visually engrossing, instead of just being inviting in appearance.
The soundtrack is on point though, just like with the last series based on a Liane Moriarty book. The intro for that matter, is just as mystifying as that of Big Little Lies, although a tad too surreal maybe. The colour scheme insinuates that what's to follow will be gritty, but the figures also seem to imply that it will be uniquely humane as an experience. The lizard and flowers, look menacing, but prepare you for the setting of the story in nature's lap. And the song playing in the background is haunting and ideal for the aesthetic of the show. If anything, the place, the people and the backdrop all have a strange effect on the visiting characters, and also on the audience, especially in the earlier episodes.
The representation of trauma is brilliant. The design of the characters as their own people and not as mouthpieces or advocates for their experiences, makes them relatable. The characterisation is rather authentic. The effect of the traumas they have experienced, is subtly incorporated into everything they do, instead of coming out in the form of outbursts all the time. This makes them believable. It's easy to get carried away, creating characters centered around a mental health context. However, Nine Perfect Strangers isn't pretentious at all, and minor behavioural patterns betray their conditions, much like in real life. It's very refreshing to see this appreciation for how trauma actually manifests in people.
The structure of the story is where things go wrong, the most. The setup takes too long with respect to the payoff. Putting these vulnerable people together, and slowly developing inter-personal dynamics, makes for an interesting study of humanity. In fact, the choice of issues is truly amazing. It's a good representative sample for the population and the journey promises to be very insightful. If you relate to any character, you're bound to take it personally, and you'll like the pace of their growth. What's downright disappointing is the manner in which the progress absolutely fades away. Of course healing occurs with acceleration in real life, but here it doesn't seem to happen at all, eventually.
The way we enter the final episode, everyone completely emotionally naked, but definitely on their way to picking up the pieces into becoming whole – it seems to imply a satisfying ending's in the books. However, it only seems to approach that immersive conclusion. The football player who has drug addiction issues is suddenly not experiencing any withdrawal and even feels emotionally healthy without any actual therapy. The effects of the psychedelic episode of the last day, have disappeared and everyone is ready to resume life, just like that. Even the woman who went unhinged and attacked the host seems to be perfectly fine. This shows a lack of appreciation for how actual therapy works. The content appears well-researched, especially because it's experimental and unique, but this actually undermines the power of psychotherapy, claiming that psychedelics and smoothies are more healing than actual counselling sessions. It's interesting as a topic, but quite disturbing as a realisation. So, while Nine Perfect Strangers has an amazing cast, the triggering story just makes it hard to endure.