A Good Series, But I Can’t Call It Perfect
Nine Perfect Strangers — The lIMITED SERIES compared to the Book
(Warning: Spoilers for Both Nine Perfect Strangers the series on Hulu and the original novel by Lianne Moriarty are below. Read at your own peril.)
I’m never entirely certain what I’m going to get when I watch a limited series adaptation of a best-selling novel which is why I try to avoid reading the book before seeing the series. I’ve had a certain amount of enjoyment either way: I thought David E. Kelley’s The Undoing was a breathtaking limited series, even though it bore very little resembling to the Jenna Hanff Korelitz novel it was based on. In contrast, I thought Hulu’s adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere was far superior to the Celeste Ng novel it was based on. Considering that David E. Kelley was adapting another Lianne Moriarty novel — Nine Perfect Strangers, a book I had read well before the series was announced, I thought I knew what I was getting into. And while Kelley was far more faithful to the source material than he was in The Undoing, I’m still not a hundred percent the changes he and his staff made worked in the stories favor.
In the book Masha (played by Nicole Kidman) is basically the therapist that she is in the limited series and most of her actions do mirror the backstory in the book — she was a brilliant businesswoman before a near death experience, the paramedic who saved her Yao (Manny Jacinto) is her most loyal disciple at Tranquillum and she has done a fair amount of research in all her tenants. But there are some key differences. In the book in the days leading up to the session, Masha has been fasting and has slowly been spiraling. Her therapy sessions are nearly as disturbed as the book makes them. However, halfway through Masha begins to become unhinged and starts to actively threaten all the guest with acts that seem certain to lead towards death — she locked them in an escape room, removes the key that would get them out, starves them and in one critical point, forces them to defend themselves as to why they shouldn’t be sentenced to death. Furthermore, she becomes increasingly deranged as the novel progresses, completely losing touch with reality by the end of the novel. The guests are not singing praises to Masha at the end of it as they are here.
There are also two critical differences which Kelley added. Masha is not at any point receiving death threats during the book and she has no connection to any of the guests prior to their sessions. (There is a critical difference that I will not reveal because it did come as a beneficial shock to me in the series and I think it’s worth seeing to find out.) Also at the center of the limited series is the fact that Masha focuses on the Marconi family, who have lost a child to suicide and begin having visions of him thanks to the micro-dosing that Masha continues to administer. But there is a critical difference between how Masha proceeds with the Marconi family in the novel and in the series. In the novel, the Marconis for all their traumas are no more important than any of the other guests. In the series, she focuses on bring their son back to them so that they can heal from their trauma because she has been trying to find a link her own dead daughter. This is a critical difference in the book, particularly in the character of Masha. In the novel Masha believes she has lost a child, but in the book that is part of a much larger delusion that is not fully revealed until the epilogue. (I won’t reveal that either because Moriarty’s novel is a good read in its own right, and the reader should go in cold.)
These changes radically affect the structure of the series and I’m still not sure one way or the other whether it makes for better television. The spirit of the actions that Masha takes in the novel is essentially at the center of the series as well. But I’m still not sure, for all the brilliance of Kidman’s performance, whether or not this really adds anything to the drama. It may seem petty to complain about Kelley deciding to make the nature of Nine Perfect Strangers more optimistic and hopeful than the novel — both the book and the series are closer to the terms of dark comedy than they are drama and, indeed the limited series actually gives a happier ending even to some of the characters who didn’t get in the novel. But was it the right tone to set? Honestly that may be a judgment for the viewer.
And maybe part of my problem is the ambiguity of the ending. I don’t mean in the sense that Nine Perfect Strangers ends with the possibility for another season: everybody’s story is wrapped up in the final minutes. No, my problem is I’m not sure whether we see in the last minutes of the story is the real ending or whether it is the work of Frances (Melissa McCarthy is brilliant throughout, for the record) finally breaking through her tired writer’s block. Are they really signs that every character has moved on? Or is just another happy ending written by a romance novel? I think it’s probably the last image of the series that will give the most confusion to viewers. I know it baffled me quite a bit.
Should you see Nine Perfect Strangers? Well, from an acting standpoint there’s a lot to enjoy. Kidman gives her usual level of brilliance in a David E. Kelley production, which means there’s a good chance she’ll be denied a Best Actress Emmy nomination for the third straight year. McCarthy, as I mentioned, is superb and the story she shares with Bobby Canavale’s Tony is, like is it in the novel, the sweetest and most perfect plot in the show. Regina Hall reveals once again that her talents are utterly being wasted in Black Monday. But perhaps the best performance in the group belongs to Michael Shannon as Napoleon Marconi, the father of the clan who has been putting up a false front for the past three years. Over the course of the series, his façade slowly and carefully breaks down becoming despairing at what he perceives to be his failure, anger towards his wife when he finds out what he thinks is the truth, and the utter breakdown when he seems to confront the demons that have been taunted him for three years. This is a nuanced performance from an actor constantly consider known for just being deranged, and it deserves Emmy consideration.
No, Nine Perfect Strangers is not, well, perfect. There’s too much unevenness in the tone and there are quite a few characters that don’t get nearly enough due in the course of the series. (Maybe that’s why I didn’t entirely believe their ending in particular.) But for all the flaws, maybe even in spite of them, it remains bubbly, moving and ultimately uplifting. Considering how dark and depressing even the best television is these days, I think that makes it worth seeing. However, watch the series first. Then read the book. I think if you go in with less baggage then I did, you’ll enjoy it even more.
My score: 4.5 stars.