But even a single rogue factor means you may have a flop on your hands, and Masha is simply one of the discordant elements Nine Perfect Strangers. This tepid attempt to duplicate the previous successes has too many flat characters and a tone that flails from camp to comedy to drama.
Based on a Liane Moriarty novel (as was Big Little Lies), the show has a bit of Agatha Christie in the setup. The spa guests who gather in the isolated retreat all have secrets and are damaged in some way. But five of those ways are dull.
Melissa McCarthy is the standout as Frances, a best-selling romance novelist recovering from a relationship that has left her feeling foolish and duped. Frances is rich, but McCarthy also makes her down-to-earth, and her emotional pain real. Wry and sceptical, she describes Masha to the other guests as “an amazing, mystical, Eastern Bloc unicorn”. McCarthy is at her vibrant best, and is almost enough to save the series.
Michael Shannon is also terrific as Napoleon Marconi, another believable character despite his cartoonish name. A high-school teacher, he is there with his wife, Heather (Asher Keddie), and their daughter, Zoe, who is about to turn 21 and is played with affecting presence by Grace Van Patten. The Marconis are grappling with a family tragedy, and Shannon reveals the grief beneath Napoleon’s hearty, optimistic manner.
But then there are the other guests. Among them, Lars (Luke Evans) has a secret about his profession that is so strongly telegraphed you have to wonder how dense his fellow guests are not to know it. (Only Zoe guesses.) Carmel, distraught that her ex-husband left her for a younger woman, is played by Regina Hall in a frumpy wig and baggy cardigans. Hall slumps when she walks and has a meek voice that eventually explodes into anger, but these visible signs can’t make Carmel more than a caricature. Bobby Cannavale plays a pill-popping loner. They’d all bore themselves to death if they were real.
At the centre, and oddly enough the most off-putting element, is Masha. Kidman never gets a handle on just how ridiculous or how sinister her character is meant to be. Masha has planted surveillance cameras everywhere, allowing her to creep up on her guests, appearing out of nowhere like the ominous Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. But Kidman fails to send a chill. The accent, the sleek white wardrobe, the ridiculous wig are knowingly campy, but the series is not committed to that tone. And the tongue-in-cheek style is only echoed in the opening credits, which have hallucinogenic 60s-style graphics, and a closeup of a healthy smoothie in a blender, blades mixing strawberries and bananas into the colour of blood.
One crucial departure from the formula is the writing. Kelley is still showrunner, but in his previous collaborations with Kidman he wrote every episode. Here he shares that credit with John Henry Butterworth and Samantha Strauss. As with Big Little Lies and The Undoing (based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book), Nine Perfect Strangers makes changes from the novel it is based on. But in the new series the attempts to heighten the drama – a menage à trois here, a shooting there – seem like sidelights rather than improvements.
In Moriarty’s 2018 novel, Frances smartly describes Masha’s presence in terms that foreshadow her on-screen presence and this entire ramshackle series: “The drama of her delivery was so deliberately hyperbolic it wasn’t even funny. It should have been funny, yet it wasn’t.”
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