Luke Evans (left) and Bobby Cannavale in "Nine Perfect Strangers." (Photo/Vince Valitutti-Hulu)
Luke Evans (left) and Bobby Cannavale in "Nine Perfect Strangers." (Photo/Vince Valitutti-Hulu)

Spending the High Holidays with ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ 

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In an episode of “Nine Perfect Strangers,” a participant at a wellness retreat is chasing after a goat on the resort premises. Hungry and in withdrawal from his medication, he intends to kill and eat it. Another participant, Napoleon, begins chasing after him in order to save the goat, but he ends up killing it instead.

He later explains to the other retreat participants that he heard Leviticus 4:23 “screaming” in his head as he slaughtered the goat. This Biblical verse details the sacrifice of a male goat as a sin offering. Napoleon’s sin? His failure to prevent his son’s suicide a few years back.

I’m not saying that the creative team behind Hulu’s “Nine Perfect Strangers” — which follows nine people searching for healing during a 10-day retreat led by a mysterious guru — orchestrated this conversation about sin, regret and repentance knowing the show would be released right before the High Holidays. But for Jews who are busy sending New Year’s cards featuring pomegranates and reading texts in which high priests lay hands on goats to transfer to them the sins of the Jewish people, this arrival is a timely one. And as the eponymous strangers engage in deep, painful self-assessment toward self-improvement — confessing secrets to Masha (the guru played by Nicole Kidman), other guests and to themselves — so do those marking the High Holidays.

Plumbing the depths of our regrets is an annual undertaking, and not an easy one. Every year we commit to change, and a year later, we admit that we’ve all missed the mark. This process is not a spa retreat of rest and relaxation. It’s the opposite. And sometimes, it feels like a time loop: Weren’t we just here? Didn’t we make these promises a year ago? And why isn’t anything different?

The time loop — by now a well-worn entertainment trope — spotlights one character under pressure to solve a challenge in a day that keeps repeating. (Think Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” trying to escape Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, or the Netflix series “Russian Doll.”) Until the protagonist “solves” the challenge, makes a big realization or accepts/fights their fate, the circumstances repeat. Often, they realize that to break the cycle, they need something to change, and if they want change to happen, they have to do it themselves.

(Light spoilers for episodes 1-4 in the paragraphs ahead.)

In the four episodes I’ve seen, there aren’t any overt time loops. But there are many flashbacks to the lives of the characters from before they arrived at the spa. While this is an important narrative device — we get to see some of the demons they’re struggling with — it can also be read as a commentary on the function of memory in guiding future choices. We might remember a regret and take steps to correct or at least not repeat it, or we might become trapped in our old behaviors or beliefs about ourselves, a psychological time loop of sorts.

“That’s just the way I am.” “I’m just not that kind of a person.” “There’s nothing I can do to change things.” The characters feel this inevitability, that what has happened to them will always be happening: from grief over a lost child to feeling like a professional failure, from anger over a marriage that didn’t end well to feeling unfulfilled despite the trappings of success. In a way, marking a new year, a new start, and confessing the things we’re most uncomfortable with can break the time loop of feeling trapped in our own story.

Nicole Kidman in "Nine Perfect Strangers." (Photo/Vince Valitutti-Hulu)
Nicole Kidman in “Nine Perfect Strangers.” (Photo/Vince Valitutti-Hulu)

The show is beautifully shot and most of the performances are great. As Masha, Kidman floats through the series in gauzy ensembles like a mischievous, possibly malevolent spirit. Despite flashbacks, Masha’s history and intentions are unclear; we know something’s wrong (beside her unreliable Russian accent) but can’t be sure if the lurking danger is human or supernatural, or if she is being targeted for a reason. Her flashbacks show glimpses of her prior life but not in a way that clarifies our understanding of the character. All we know is that she is more than what she seems.

Another lesson of the show is the establishment of community, even a temporary one, as a catalyst for confession and connection. While characters begin at odds with each other, the group coalesces as a whole, and also in one- or two-to-one encounters that form microcommunities: a man who lost his relationship over the issue of having children meets with a young woman who lost her twin brother; two people defined by their professional faltering and personal flaws find connection beyond an initially angry meeting. The message that comes through is about the creation and function of community. While community can and often does form around the familiar, sometimes it takes a different environment, a situation shake-up, to rattle us into honesty and revelation.

While the arrival of “Nine Perfect Strangers” just ahead of the High Holiday season obviously is a coincidence, it’s still a reminder that pop culture, especially with today’s constant flow of streaming options, presents us with entertainment opportunities that can also provoke deep thoughts through our particular lenses of meaning.

In this Jewish season of introspection, we focus on what we’ve done, identify the victims of our more human moments, and assess how we can do better in the year that lies ahead. While reaching into ourselves, we also reach out to others, standing in community for communal song, the sounding of a shofar and various rousing choruses of amen. We pair our repentance with personal and communal action as we note that if you have nine perfect strangers, you are one short of a minyan — and this reminds us that one single person can make the difference, can transform a group into a community.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.