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Science & Medicine

'Nine Perfect Strangers' Is The Latest Show From The 'Big Little Lies' Team

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Four years ago, TV writer-producer David E. Kelley and actor Nicole Kidman teamed up for a successful HBO miniseries called "Big Little Lies" based on the bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty. Now they've teamed up again for a new TV miniseries called "Nine Perfect Strangers" based on Moriarty's 2018 novel. Kelley is the creator. Kidman is the star. And it premieres Wednesday on Hulu. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Liane Moriarty's novel "Nine Perfect Strangers" comes to television with the same basic ingredients and approach it had in print. It's part Agatha Christie-style drawing room mystery, with eccentric characters confined to one place and a recurring threat of murder lurking in the shadows. It's also part reality show, with each participant selected for specific reasons, not only their own pasts but for their personalities and how they can potentially react to and sometimes trigger the others.

The setting is a remote, controversial, new-age spa called Tranquillum House, a California retreat run by a spiritual, mysterious woman named Masha. With a Russian accent, a very slow and deliberate manner of talking and an almost ethereal presence, she's played by Nicole Kidman. It's yet another deep and challenging role she's inhabited since opting to focus on TV miniseries as well as movies. Her other TV work includes not only a previous Moriarty TV adaptation of "Big Little Lies" but also another excellent HBO drama, "The Undoing." But "Nine Perfect Strangers" is more of an ensemble than a solo turn. And the nine strangers gathered by Masha for a concentrated dose of healing and of personal discovery are impeccably cast.

David E. Kelley and John-Henry Butterworth developed the novel for Hulu, which premieres at this Wednesday, and Jonathan Levine directs all eight episodes. Hulu provided the first six for preview, and they're very entertaining. Michael Shannon from "Boardwalk Empire" plays one of the guests, a grieving father who's attending with his wife and daughter. And the two scene-stealers are Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale. He plays Tony, a former pro athlete. She plays Frances, an author who gets a call from her agent while driving to the retreat - and it's bad news. She's just lost her contract with her publisher. She pulls off the road by a remote field and screams. But Tony, also heading to Tranquillum House hears her and pulls over. This is where "Nine Perfect Strangers" kicks into high gear. And we're not even at the resort yet.

Kelley, as a TV writer-producer of "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and "Boston Legal," won Emmys for both comedy and drama and plays to both strengths here. And like Masha, Kelley and company have chosen their participants well. Bobby Cannavale is very funny here, like he's channeling his inner Ray Romano. And McCarthy is, well, Melissa McCarthy, which means she's hilarious.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NINE PERFECT STRANGERS")

BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Tony) Hello? You OK? Do you need some help, miss?

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Frances) No. I'm good. I'm good.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) You don't seem good.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) I was just having a quiet moment of despair.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) OK. Well, that's your idea of a quiet moment, because you seemed - you were screaming like a banshee. That's why I pulled over.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) Well, I'm sorry. I apologize.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) It's OK.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) I thought I was in the middle of nowhere, completely alone. Clearly, that is not the case.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) Are you sick?

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) I beg your pardon?

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) You seem to be having some kind of a mental breakdown, episode sort of thing. I'm not judging, you know? I've got mental illness in my own family.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) Is that right? I'm fine. Thank you.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) You know, it's not normal to be screaming dead to the [expletive] world at the top your lungs, you know?

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) You know what it is? I was having a hot flash.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) Oh.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) So I'm good. Thank you so much.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) Do you take supplements?

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) I'm sorry?

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) Progesterone? Progesterone - I heard that helps.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) Are we actually having this conversation right now?

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) What's with the tone, lady?

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) I don't have a tone. I am just not used to complete strangers prescribing hormone replacement therapy curbside.

CANNAVALE: (As Tony) Apologies. I can see now that you are a tragic person. Have a good day.

BIANCULLI: Yet the characters, like the actors playing them, aren't here just for laughs. Once Frances arrives at the retreat and is ushered into her room, she burst into tears and sobs and becomes the first guest to encounter Nicole Kidman as Masha, who just sort of appears.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NINE PERFECT STRANGERS")

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) How did you get in here?

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Masha) I came in through the door. I'm Masha.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) You're her?

KIDMAN: (As Masha) Why are you crying, Frances?

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) Oh, you know, just a little bit of my-career-is-over kind of thing, a bit of menopause - mix in a little bad relationship and a dash of crippling shame.

KIDMAN: (As Masha) We're going to get you well.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) You know, I almost didn't come. And then when I did get here, I really thought about leaving.

KIDMAN: (As Masha) Nearly everyone here almost didn't come. They sense it's going to take courage. And it'll be, sometimes, unpleasant. And I'll tell you something else, the people who come here, most of them, they have fairly good lives, comfortable even. They come for the suffering.

MCCARTHY: (As Frances) I don't want to suffer.

KIDMAN: (As Masha) You're already suffering.

BIANCULLI: Masha's methods are very unorthodox. The daily smoothies have more potent ingredients in them than just fresh fruits and veggies. And the individual therapy sessions can be quite intense. But this miniseries is unorthodox as well. It can be very comic, then turned, suddenly, into sadness or tragedy. We get to know these guests, and even the counselors, but slowly and partly through flashbacks that, like the interactions at the spa, take time to unravel. But for viewers, it's all time well-spent.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "Nine Perfect Strangers." It premieres Wednesday on Hulu. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR. Our guest will be tennis great Billie Jean King. In a new memoir, she describes her hard-fought battles to win recognition and pay for women in the sport, her legendary battle-of-the-sexes defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome and some joyous and painful moments in her personal life. The book is called "All In." I hope you'll join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON AND DAVE HOLLAND'S "SEASCAPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.