Wednesday, August 18, 2021

REVIEW: 'Nine Perfect Strangers' - Masha and Her Staff Welcome Their New Guests to the Retreat in 'Random Acts of Mayhem'

Hulu's Nine Perfect Strangers - Episode 1.01 "Random Acts of Mayhem"

Promised total transformation, nine very different people arrive at Tranquillum House, a secluded retreat run by the mysterious wellness guru Masha.

In 2020, the television industry aired 493 scripted shows across numerous outlets. The way people consume content now is different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, it's less necessary to provide ample coverage of each episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site provides shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the series premiere of Hulu's Nine Perfect Strangers.

"Random Acts of Mayhem" was written by David E. Kelley & John-Henry Butterworth and directed by Jonathan Levine

Tranquillum House is managed by a mysterious guru Masha who carefully calibrates the guests who attend each retreat. She does so with the intention of their issues complimenting each other and providing valuable insights through a group healing environment. It's not what the people expect when they walk into this place. They are used to living their lives as individuals. That is their sole identity. It has conditioned a lot of narcissistic thoughts and behaviors. Masha insists that each of these nine strangers will walk out of this retreat as changed people. They will die and be reborn. She will guide them on that journey. And yet, it should be apparent in this first episode how these various people compliment each other. Having such an expansive ensemble provides the show with the opportunity to pair interesting characters opposite one another. However, they each remain isolated as they sign in for this adventure. It's meant to highlight the behavior they exhibit before this experience. It's meaningful character work that provides backstory for these people so that the audience can understand how to react to everyone. And yet, so much of the story is choosing to remain cryptic. These characters are painted in incredibly broad strokes. Some of them basically just repeat the same dialogue over and over again. That grows tiring quickly. Jessica tells her husband Ben that they are here to work on their relationship. It's something glaringly obvious. She keeps bringing it up because it's something that they should both want. She seeks that approval and acknowledgement from him. After this first episode though, she is nothing more than a social media-obsessed influencer and his identity is driven entirely by his fancy, luxurious car. That's basically it. Sure, some characters succeed based on the little character details that the performers give here. It's already abundantly clear that Carmel seeks to please the people around her. She is frequently and casually tossed aside by everyone else. She feels disconnected from life and seeks to be activated as a cherished member of society. All of that is informed by how she reacts to the crazy actions of those around her. She is already giving herself completely to Masha. Everyone else has questions about this process. They are inquisitive about every single step. They are reluctant to hand over their phones. They wish to maintain some privacy with their personal items in their rooms. They are all essentially exposed and laid bare for Masha to do whatever she wants with them. It's already revealed that she is carefully monitoring them throughout this grand property. She knows details about them. Some of them come from the stories that led to this moment. Others come from how they react in the present. It's easy for the audience to pick up on some of these clues. And yet, this episode is suppose to function as a blunt introduction of these characters. It has a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to introduce everyone. As such, it struggles to delve into their motivations and what they are hoping to achieve from this experience. With Frances, her backstory happens in the moments before she arrives. Her personal and professional lives are falling apart. She is the only visitor to have a meeting with Masha before the group orientation. It's meant to expose how none of these people will have a private moment at this retreat. Every emotion they express will have to be addressed and explored. Masha is harsh with that rhetoric right away. She tells Frances that people come here to suffer. She makes Tony confront the reality that all of this is being done with a purpose. She challenges Heather's need to protect her daughter. But again, these moments lack power because the audience doesn't know what's going on that provokes these responses. The Marconi family largely talks around some tragedy that has profoundly shaped them in the last year. Meanwhile, Tony and Lars serve as annoying fixtures. It's so incredibly basic. It's startling actually. Moreover, several characters comment on the fact that these wellness retreats only cater to people with immense privilege. Noting that repeatedly doesn't change the fact that most of these characters are selfish and privileged narcissists right off the bat. The story certainly elevates Masha as some mythical creature who can transform people. Those expectations are set high. Many are skeptical though. They have every right to be. It also feels as if the show itself doesn't want the audience to trust it. That's a huge problem. One that threatens to derail the show from fully taking off. It's tentative with its moves and desires. A strong cast can overcome that. It simply doesn't make this a narrative with a lot on its mind and a willingness to examine the true complexity of the human psyche. The audience has to recalibrate accordingly even if the show wants to still be perceived as a prestige series that attracted a high-caliber cast to tell its stories.