Mysteries set at luxury destinations seem to be the trend of the summer. Over the last few weeks, I checked out two shows set at fancy resorts, The White Lotus and Nine Perfect Strangers, and a somewhat more grounded mystery in a New York high-rise, Only Murders in the Building.
If you have not watched HBO’s breakout summer hit, The White Lotus, I recommend it. This six-episode series focuses on the privileged, badly-behaved guests at a Hawaiian luxury hotel and the devoted staff who humor them. Manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) winds up in a bit of a cold war with man-child Shane (Jake Lacy), a honeymooner who gets obsessed with righting a perceived slight. In the meantime, Shane’s wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), is having an identity crisis mere days into their marriage; wealthy flake Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) struggles with grieving her mother; and the Mossbacher family (Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Sydney Sweeney, and Fred Hechinger) and their guest (Brittany O’Grady) struggle to get along with each other. Oh, and in the first scene, we learn that someone dies.
Everything in The White Lotus is a little heightened and obnoxious, which serves the story about dramatic, obnoxious rich people well. The location is beautiful, but it is shot with a yellow tint and ominous scenes of crashing waves that add to the claustrophobic atmosphere that the guests create. The music brilliantly sets the tone of each scene, but there is an overwhelming amount of it. These details meld with the darkly comic dialogue and the brilliant acting to create a riveting, unsettling mystery. The acting brings it all together. Jennifer Coolidge gets more screen time than she often does and is hilarious. Murray Bartlett makes Armond a precarious balance of loveable and contemptable. As the spa manager, Belinda, Natasha Rothwell gives a standout performance as perhaps the only truly good person in the bunch. In all, this show is a must-watch cringefest.
Nine Perfect Strangers features an equally unlikeable crew of characters but lacks the oddball charm of The White Lotus. In this Hulu Original Series, nine strangers (Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Luke Evans, Asher Keddie, Samara Weaving, Melvin Gregg, Regina Hall, Bobby Cannavale, and Grace Van Patten) check into an exclusive wellness retreat run by a mysterious guru, Masha (Nicole Kidman), whose unconventional methods (including some hallucinogenic drugs) are designed to free them from their baggage, ranging from grief to Instagram addiction.
As of this writing, five of eight episodes have been released. Whereas The White Lotus had the over-the-top, yellow-tinted charm of a Wes Anderson movie, Nine Perfect Strangers pairs a trippy, convoluted plot with scenes of real human anguish. Although the characters are interesting, the story is surprisingly bland. I gave up reading the Liane Moriarity novel the show is based on and thought the show would be a good way to find out what happens, but despite the considerable talents of the ensemble, I still had a hard time getting invested in the polished chaos unfolding.
The characters, not the absurd plot, will probably keep me watching. Melissa McCarthy is bitingly funny as a heartbroken writer and Samara Weaving gives a wonderfully vulnerable performance as well. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman seems like a parody character into the mix. From her flat affect to her ever-shifting accent, Kidman is at her weirdest and worst. But really, I might keep watching to see if Regina Hall ever goes off on someone for real.
Finally, just three episodes in, Only Murders in the Building, also a Hulu original, is my favorite of this bunch, gladly leaving behind beachy summer shows for New York in autumn. In the series, aging actor Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) and out-of-work director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) bond with a young woman living in their building, Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) over a true crime podcast. That very night, someone is found dead in their building and, convinced that he was murdered, they decide to investigate and create a podcast of their own.
Ironic digs at true crime podcasters have been done several times, but never with Steve Martin. The real draw here is the quirky sense of humor embodied by the pairing of Steve Martin and Martin Short. Selena Gomez holds her own as well, delivering one liners with good timing and a funny, blasé tone. Some of the journeys into Oliver’s backstory drag, but the dialogue otherwise sings, and the show does a wonderful job of building the world of the apartment building with a mixture of classic style and bonkers details. I’m looking forward to watching this show as it continues.
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