‘Nine Perfect Strangers’: Watching a White Show Through a Black Lens

Too often, critics seem to content themselves to ask about what these shows mean for the world at large. But, do the Black characters feel real?

Sep 27 2021, 7:01pm

As a culture writer, I have the unique privilege of binge-watching hours of television and film while feeling zero guilt about it. Nada. That is a perk of the job. As a Black culture writer, though, my frame of reference is different. My focus is almost exclusively on Black art—or, as Daymond John’s 1992 streetwear brand so perfectly put it, art that is “for us, by us.”

But, what if it wasn’t? What if I took the same lens I use to analyze the work of Black creators, and used it to examine movies and tv shows with wider (read: whiter) appeal?

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The internet already offers an endless loop of think pieces about shows like Succession or Billions—shows that may feature a couple Black characters, usually in supporting roles, but nonetheless usually center white stories and perspectives. Too often, critics and reviewers seem to content themselves to ask about what these shows mean for the world at large. But does it mirror my world? Do the Black characters feel real?

On mainstream television, Black characters, if present at all, are relegated to the background. I thought about this recently while watching Nine Perfect Strangers, a small screen adaptation of the 2018 novel written by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, set at a fictional new age retreat. Nine Perfect Strangers features only three Black characters (out of 12) and race is only mentioned once at Tranquillum, which is particularly odd considering this is supposed to be a place where people excavate and heal their trauma. 

The following is my attempt at Blacksplaining a white show: Nine Perfect Strangers. I do this with one goal, and one goal only: to show you that when we focus on the Black characters on mainstream TV, we can learn an awful lot about the state of representation today. 

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So, what’s the story? 
At the beginning of Nine Perfect Strangers, we join a group of strangers—nine of them, of course—as they embark on a 10-day retreat at Tranquillum House, an upscale wellness center in a remote location. Masha (played by Nicole Kidman) is the director of Tranquillum, and just about all of the house guests—including her employees—are enamored by her platinum blonde, ice princess aesthetic. 

Masha is an enigma: She is cold and detached, yet maternal and attentive to the needs of everyone on the premises. At Tranquillum House, Masha is God, and her disciples will allow her to do just about anything in the name of healing. So when the group discovers that she’s been microdosing their daily smoothies with magic mushrooms, the outrage is only temporary. 

During almost every episode of Nine Perfect Strangers, I whispered to myself: That’s some white people shit. Much of the show satirizes the Goopy side of the wellness space (think: singing bowls, artfully blended smoothies, powerful blonde women wearing all-white tunics), as well as the arrogance and ignorance of its practitioners, such as when Masha insists that the death of a former client was because of cheeseburgers and not the drugs she was pumping in him—without consent. And while Melvin Gregg (Snowfall), Tiffany Boone (The Chi), and Regina Hall (Black Monday) all play their roles exceptionally well, it wasn’t completely clear to me whether the characters were supposed to be Black. More often than not, it seemed like these Black actors had been simply slotted into roles from the show’s Australian source material, with little acknowledgement of how their identity as Black Americans might factor into the relationships and power dynamics we see playing out on screen. 

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Who are the Black people? 
Ben Chandler
When we meet Ben (played by Melvin Gregg) he’s driving a gaudy yellow Lamborghini to Tranquillum with his wife Jessica riding shotgun. Clad in an understated sweatsuit and thin glasses, he immediately registers as the stereotype of what happens when Black men reach a certain threshold of success. The kind of guy that Kanye West seemed to be describing on “Gold Digger” when he rapped: “When he get on, he’ll leave your ass for a white girl.” 

But Jessica is not just any white girl. She’s an influencer who rocks a sky-high ponytail and gets lip injections religiously. This, paired with Ben’s impossible-to-miss sports car, tells us that the Chandlers are all about appearances. So what brings them to Tranquillum? By the season finale, we honestly still don’t know. Save for an awkward sex scene, we don’t learn much about their marital issues, and the details of Ben’s backstory that we do learn are barely satisfying. 

So how exactly can Ben afford a Lamborghini? He won the lottery. Who the hell wins the lotto anymore, anyway? Apparently, not Millennials—which makes the idea that Ben won $22 million even more far-fetched. When fellow house guest Napoleon Marconi asks Ben what his story is, all we get are vague details about his past driving a catering truck. “I don’t have one. Never been anything, never done anything.” 

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At one point in the series, Jessica and Ben realize they were the only guests who aren’t being drugged, and although the reason for that is never revealed, we do learn one more detail about Ben’s life outside Tranquillum: He’s skeptical about trying Masha’s drug protocol, because his sister lived with addiction. 

Still, these small clues about Ben’s interiority don’t really add up to anything, or go anywhere. Ben quickly carves out a role as the voice of reason in the group, asking questions the audience (and my Black ass) is thinking: Why didn’t Masha tell them about the drugs upfront? Why are the women there obsessed with changing their appearance? But in terms of character development, aside from a vague resolution to return to his life before the lotto, Ben Chandler leaves Tranquillum pretty much the same as he arrived.

Delilah 
Let me preface this by pointing out that Delilah (played by Tiffany Boone) is the one person at Tranquillum who can stand up to Masha, and the writers haven’t even bothered to give her a last name. Nonetheless, Delilah plays an important role at the retreat, and she’s everything Masha is not. She works for Masha and keeps the trains running on time, and more importantly, she’s personable. She has a way of making the commandments of Tranquillum, like the house’s mandatory blood tests, seem a little less ridiculous, reminding guests with a smile that it was a part of the contract they signed upon arriving. And although she initially strikes us as a perfect employee, she has her moments where she deviates from the rules, like taking a few pulls of a cigarette.

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When Masha starts getting anonymous threats via text message, we are initially made to believe that Delilah is the culprit, because of the weird love triangle between her, her partner Yao (another employee), and Masha. But Delilah and Masha don’t just butt heads about Yao; the two disagree about how much Masha is dosing her clients. Still, Masha clearly has some sort of hold on Delilah, which becomes even clearer when it is revealed that Delilah, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is also being dosed. The problem with the show’s characterization of Delilah is that it uses this diagnosis as the reason for her rebellion, when in reality it's quite normal to disagree with watching people be drugged without their consent. 

As the season progresses, Delilah starts to unravel from the put together version of herself. But it isn’t because of her mental health condition; it’s because the house is overwhelming—or, as she puts it in episode one, there are “too many cases in the basket.” When she tells a guest to “Fuck off” before reciting a Maya Angelou quote to another, I read her fatigue as the natural product of having to code switch for 10 days straight—not a psychiatric illness. Still, none of her outbursts are more satisfying than when she finally decides she’s had enough of Tranquillum, but Masha refuses to open the gate to the premises to let her out. “Open the fucking gate, please,” Delilah says. It’s definitely her best line in the series, positioning Masha as her superior even as the tone says what we are all thinking: You have me fucked up.

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Carmel Schneider
Carmel (played by Regina Hall) is easily the show’s most complex character, but is also its most problematic. When we meet Carmel, she seems to be the only house guest who actually wants to be there. She’s looking for a total transformation, but most importantly, she wants to return to the person she was before her marriage fell to pieces. During her stay at Tranquillum, she’s easily triggered by memories of her ex-husband, which quickly chip away at her sweet, unassuming exterior. 

When Lars, another house guest, suggests that Carmel buy a vibrator to let off some steam, we catch our first glimpse of Carmel’s violent streak. She lunges at him from across the table and chokes him. Later, she tells Jessica she wants to punch her because she reminds her of her ex-husband’s new wife, Lillian. “I would never do it though,” she says. The audience isn’t convinced. Carmel doesn’t seem to be either. 

Hall deserves to win an award for her portrayal of Carmel; she has a knack for injecting bits of comedic relief into a character who is, otherwise, a little scary, such as when she says that Lillian is probably, “Flossing her teeth with his pencil dick.” Still, Carmel’s role on the show, whether intentional or not, is rooted in a strange obsession with young, white women. In memories of her divorce, she mentions that her husband had a pattern of cheating with “younger, prettier things,” which says a lot about how Carmel views herself. 

When the show shocks us with a big revelation about how Masha and Carmel have crossed paths in the past, Carmel lays out her motives for coming to Tranquillum. “I came here to study you,” she says. “To study you in the hopes of becoming you. Then he might want me back.” By looking at Carmel’s hate for Jessica, and obsession with Masha, it’s only fair to assume that it’s because they resemble Lillian. 

This not only sets a problematic precedent, but drives home how race can shape our understanding of the relationships we see playing out on screen: If Carmel was a middle aged white woman having an identity crisis, that’s one thing. But to write a violent Black character who takes her anger out on white women in 2021 is just tired. Even if this was simply an oversight on the producers’ part—a function of casting Hall as this particular character in the novel—the risk of perpetuating this stereotype should have been enough for the show’s creators to deviate from its source material, as they did at many other points in the series.

Do the Black characters feel real?
I watched the series twice. The second time around, I tried to scrutinize it using my own version of the Bechdel test, a guideline for measuring gender equality in fictional works that asks whether there are at least two women present, and if they talk to each other about something other than a man. In Nine Perfect Strangers, there aren’t any scenes where the Black characters converse with each other without any white people present. And in the few scenes where Ben and Carmel do speak to each other, they always seem moments away from an argument. In retrospect, that is probably because Carmel is being Carmel and seeing her ex-husband in Ben. But either way, it’s completely unrealistic that Ben, Delilah, and Carmel, by contrast with the other house guests, would manage to completely avoid each other during the claustrophobic insanity of 10 days at Tranquillum. 

But, overall, the lack of care taken to develop the racial identities of Ben, Delilah, and Carmel leaves these three characters feeling hollow—even in scenes where they’re sharing their deepest fears and regrets. If we’re talking about emotional wounds as they relate to the show’s Black characters, that distress is unlikely to exist separately from their experience as Black Americans. We don’t maneuver through life without race affecting how the world perceives us, and how we perceive others. 

In the end, despite her penchant for lying and control, many of the guests still seem to view Masha as a savior. I’m left considering just how much she’s taken from Ben, Delilah, and Carmel in her personal pursuit of healing and power. She’s had her fun with Yao—and Delilah—and is ready to move on. Nine Perfect Strangers is incredibly entertaining if for no other reason than for considering how far you would go to become the best version of yourself. Would I, a Black woman, attend? Hell no. 

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

Tagged:

Hulu, Regina Hall, melvin gregg, nine perfect strangers, tiffany boone

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