Not every show has to be explicitly political
Nine Perfect Strangers has suffered from one of the more awkward media rollouts in recent memory. The problem is less the marketing for the show itself as it is the bad timing in the zeitgeist. Nine Perfect Strangers began airing on August 18th-exactly three days after the conclusion of The White Lotus on HBO, and the Hulu series has suffered a lot from emerging in the shadow of The White Lotus. The superficial similarity of the shows made comparisons natural. White Lotus takes place at a Hawaiian resort complex, while Nine Perfect Strangers takes place at a natural health resort. But on a structural level the two have surprisingly little in common–to the detriment of Nine Perfect Strangers.
The HBO miniseries deals with the guests and, to a lesser extent, the employees of the titular resort. It features intense discussion of class. In the first episode a White Lotus employee attempts to stall for time in the face of child labor because she doesn’t want her new employer to know that she’s pregnant.
The hotel carefully keeps this behind-the-scenes drama out of view of its wealthy guests. Despite their financial resources, the guests all find unique ways to be miserable. One man ruins his honeymoon over an incredibly petty argument over an incorrectly booked room. A family of colorful characters bickers with each other about how little they like one another, finally segueing into increasingly uncomfortable and pointless conversations about class and race to avoid engaging with how pathetic they really are.
Despite the dramatic trappings, White Lotus is fairly clearly a sadistic comedy in the classic Seinfeld vein. No one actually learns anything. The characters refuse to try and proactively solve their problems. Instead, they rely on arcane interpretations of implied societal rules to win arguments, or at least force other people to acknowledge having lost them.
What does this have to do with Nine Perfect Strangers? Well, almost nothing. People are explicitly visiting this mysterious health resort to solve their emotional problems. In a far cry from the subservient and artificially ebullient Murray Bartlett as the manager of the White Lotus, Nicole Kidman of Tranquillum House makes it clear at every possible opportunity that she’s the boss. A person who applies to Tranquillum House does so fully acknowledging that their life is a mess, and that they are trusting her to help them fix it.
Nicole Kidman is still playing a role as a wise, beautiful Earth Mother, despite her lack of actual absolute control. There’s a brilliant scene where she has to pretend like the murder of a goat was well within expectations as part of her master plan, with a final glimpse of her face showing that it most definitely wasn’t. But the difference between her and Murray Bartlett couldn’t be any more stark. Bartlett can’t assert dominance with his guests, to his increasing mental degradation.
More subtly, you can’t really call any the characters in Nine Perfect Strangers wealthy. They’re at best rich, and most of them not even that. If the distinction escapes you, Chris Rock once said that while Shaquille ‘O Neal is rich, the guy who signs his check is wealthy. They also have jobs, or at least used to, which we see as times goes on are very wrapped up in their sense of personal identity. At one point the show thoroughly excoriates Melissa McCarthy’s character, a novelist, for writing terrible romances with ham-handed woke-of-the-week flavoring to pander to her target audience.
Such a scene would be incomprehensible in White Lotus, which is so dedicated to passive-aggressive behavior that its characters are genuinely confused when someone makes a direct, concrete request. And this is where Nine Perfect Strangers has really gotten the short end of the stick. Simply by having a release window so close to White Lotus, critics have assumed it’s also a political commentary–despite that plainly not being the case by any reasonable reading of the story.
You can’t interpret all stories through a political lens, and nor should you; doing so obsessively will take you to some very silly places. Nine Perfect Strangers, much like the previous David E. Kelley adaptation of a Liane Moriarty novel, Big Little Lies, is principally a mystery. Is Nicole Kidman a nut? Do her treatments actually work? Regardless of the answer to the above questions, will the initially assholish characters realize, through their experience with their fellow patients, that they do have a basic humanity and aren’t the sad, pathetic, broken-down people they think they are?
Similar questions weren’t at play in White Lotus, because character growth was anathema to the collective delusion every individual character had that their lives were already perfect. On the rare occasion different character clusters interacted with each other, the result was either open antagonism or a slow burn to inevitable disaster. But while cynicism may be hip and relevant, dismissing Nine Perfect Strangers out of hand for not being sufficiently cynical ironically plays right into the psychosis experienced by the bulk of the characters from both dramas. Feeling superior is no substitute for feeling happy.