I bought a biography of the playwright Tom Stoppard for my father last Christmas which may have done some unintended psychic trauma. My dad is a playwright himself, and really a rather good one, but his fame and riches, it would be fair to say, have never cost Stoppard any sleep. Nor was he ever in danger of being put in the poorhouse, but money is an ongoing struggle for him as for most artists and most people.
In Stoppard’s biography, my dad told me over lunch the other day, mentions of his immense bank balance are frequent. Here a Spielberg project, there another soldout West End run, everywhere a casual hundred thousand popping up when needed.
These niggling tidbits embedded themselves in my dad’s brain so that he found himself in bed one night idly trying to add up the various specified sums to try to guess what Stoppard was worth. I am not above this myself – he must have passed begrudging bean-counting down to me along with a love of words.
In the latest Sally Rooney novel, Alice, the 29-year-old prodigious novelist who has a lot in common with her author, reveals she has a million quid in the bank. Pfft, I thought to myself, counting up the various telly adaptations under the Rooney belt, I bet she’s got more than that.
Some unattractive speculation about the bank balance of writers is ultimately harmless I think, but it doesn’t bode well when such thoughts consume you in the actual moment you ought to be swept up in their art. This was one of many telltale signs that Nine Perfect Strangers, the ensemble Prime drama with its redundantly astonishing cast, was not quite doing its job.
Liane Moriarty must be raking it in, I kept thinking, she must be one of the best remunerated novelists in the history of novels. Not only does she bang out delightfully, ceaselessly readable novels at the rate most of us manage to get round to changing the sheets, but she’s now had two enormous starry HBO series made out of them. And these shows look expensive, feel expensive, as any show ever has. Moriarty is, of course, the author of Big Little Lies, the dark, addictive domestic violence drama with the unpredictable twists and burgeoning secrets. It had a superb cast (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott), a truly disturbing storyline whose seriousness was not undermined by the sometimes soapy shenanigans or the extravagant affluence the camera lapped up.
Kidman, so brittle and brilliant in that show, also stars in Nine Perfect Strangers, but here her intensity and piercing gaze are rendered utterly, comically cartoonish. She is Masha, a Russian wellness guru running an exclusive retreat called Tranquillum. Masha is a reformed hard-nosed business bitch. She used to burn herself out with cigarettes and shagging married men, and booze, skirting round the edge of a vacant soul – then a shooting led to a near death experience which radically transformed her relationship to the world and reality and spirituality.
She runs her retreat with fascistic authority, dosing her guests (all of whom are messed up in dramatic, narratively rewarding ways) with psychedelics and forcing them to confront traumatic memories, instructing them that if they obey they will find peace and reconciliation.
The only trouble is that someone at the retreat is sending Masha mysterious threats, and she begins to scrutinise each of her guests, as well as her worshipful staff. There’s a lot that should work here. The wellness industry is an endlessly lampoonable one, for instance. A secluded location acting as a pressure cooker for a bunch of misaligned weirdos is always a solid set up.
The cast is nothing short of a miracle, dripping with sheer shining quality. And it all comes together to make up one big fat nothing.
This is the most impressively boring show I have seen in years. I’m not joking when I say I can happily watch more or less anything, even things I don’t like at all – cartoons, Top Gear, Boris Johnson press conferences – but I am struggling to persevere with this, the most Prestige Telly telly you could dream of. That’s part of the problem, in fact.
All the trappings of event TV are here, assembled with such smooth precision that one can feel the aesthetic being fine tuned by a committee meeting, the theme song getting okayed by focus groups of thirty- and forty-somethings who spend no time or love on art but for whom it is important to regard themselves as culturally sensitive.
The fact is, with all due respect to Moriarty, Nine Perfect Strangers is too silly to be treated like this. It’s a fun fluffy book which I read in its entirety in one plane journey, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It would reward an intentionally trashy treatment, something with a sense of its own absurdity and camp, fussy drama. Instead we get Nicole Kidman fluttering about in pound shop wig and an ambiguously Kremlin-adjacent accent like an Austin Powers call girl, and direly dull little flashback scenes no sane person could be bothered trying to interpret. Oh wow, a tree, a little girl, some snow! How intolerably poignant!
The meaning of these scenes, which intervene regularly from the beginning, are only explained after six episodes, by which point, who cares? For us to care, the characters would have to be people, and these aren’t people. These are brief, jazzy character outlines – there’s a narcissistic, insecure social media influencer for instance, and an unhinged housewife driven mad by her husband’s infidelity, and a nervy teenager girl scarred by her twin brother’s suicide.
These descriptions are all solid bases for characters, but they can’t be expected to carry the whole weight. Strangely, the stellar actors somehow only underline the absence. Michael Shannon, painfully brilliant, appears to have wandered in from some serious, subtle, elegant project. It’s not in my nature not to finish what I start, I will likely see this out to the bitter end, but I do wish I could follow him there instead.