When Nicole Kidman first appears as Masha in “Nine Perfect Strangers,” it’s like an angel hath descended.
Draped in white garments, hair silky and bright as if lit by a halo, she’s a vision of pale, ethereal beauty. She silently slips into the airy rooms of the wellness retreat she runs, lurks in dark corners, then softly emerges, all super awareness and presence. Her eyes look into souls, and when she speaks, her Russian accent turns banalities — “Zere can be BIRTH in DEATH!” — into the wisdom of the ages.
In other words, the new eight-episode miniseries is Peak Kidman. And that’s saying something after her camp turn as a coat goddess with pre-Raphaelite hair in “The Undoing,” playing a beleaguered wife wanting to discreetly pace Manhattan but unable to abstain from gaudy plumage.
In “Nine Perfect Strangers,” based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the actress is even more captivating in a way, managing to be icily distant and lodged inside the present moment at the same time. She’s part tough-loving therapist, part alien being, and, with her accent, part Natasha Fatale of Pottsylvania, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her throughout the six episodes sent for review. She lights up the story, and brings fascination to even the weakest plot strands.
Really, she and the rest of the cast are the reason to watch the Hulu series, which premieres with three episodes on Wednesday. “Nine Perfect Strangers” is more of a melodrama embedded with small mysteries than a prestige drama — more of an “Undoing” than a “Big Little Lies” season one. All of these shows were written by David E. Kelley, the busy scripter who can go as high (“The Practice”) as he can go low (“The Crazy Ones”); “Nine Perfect Strangers” (co-written with John-Henry Butterworth) falls somewhere in the middle of his reach, at times lifted to the upper-middle by the performances. Watching this set of actors submit to Masha’s smoothies is a lot of fun, as is their obligation to go “forest bathing,” forgo cellphones, and explore their most tender emotional depths.
As written, the nine characters paying for 10 days of healing at Masha’s Tranquillum House are not particularly original; they’re types for a logline. There’s unhappy romance writer Frances (Melissa McCarthy), irritable former football star Tony (Bobby Cannavale), mysterious gay man Lars (Luke Evans), a bored couple (Samara Weaving’s Jessica and Melvin Gregg’s Ben) looking for a spark, bitter divorcee Carmel (Regina Hall), and a family — Napoleon (Michael Shannon), Heather (Asher Keddie), and their daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten) — hoping to heal from a loss. But the actors add some body and soul, and the face-offs, particularly between McCarthy and Cannavale, and between Keddie and Shannon, are primo. It’s all a bit “Lost”-like, as the thrown-together guests alternately turn on one another and band together. But the show is more of a less satirical, touchy-feely “The White Lotus,” as a little trip turns into a TRIP.
With each episode, Masha aggressively pushes each of her guests further into self-examination, telling them they need to suffer in order to escape their pain. At one point, she has them literally dig their own graves. She is in control of everything at Tranquillum, an architectural beauty located in the Northern California wilderness, and she has researched and selected each guest for specific reasons. She watches them on hidden video cameras, and she even determines the ingredients of their diets, which are served up by her main assistants and loyal followers, Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone).
Masha is thrown when she begins to receive cryptic threats in texts, triggering her own difficult memories about the life she led before she became a guru. It’s the script’s big who’s-doing-it that’s meant to keep us guessing from hour to hour, as all the psychodramatics play out with the guests. I was less interested in learning the identity of the culprit, though, than in exploring Masha’s own torment — which, I’m hoping, the show will do in the final two episodes. This angel serves up a little heaven to her guests, but she may be living in a hell of her own making.
NINE PERFECT STRANGERS
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, Tiffany Boone, Manny Jacinto, Regina Hall, Michael Shannon, Asher Keddie, Grace Van Patten, Luke Evans, Samara Weaving, Melvin Gregg
On: Hulu. Premieres with three episodes on Wednesday.