Could psychedelic drugs be TV and cinema’s secret spell for amplified viewership experience? Concoctions of dancing colors, moody music and unorthodox cinematography add that je ne sais quoi that we’ve been craving for to Hulu’s latest original series Nine Perfect Strangers.
Created by David E. Kelley, directed by Jonathan Levine and featuring cinema goddess Nicole Kidman, the phenomenal Regina Hall, and queen of comedy Melissa McCarthy, the cast alone is enough to draw anyone in. But like all outstanding shows, this series needed an X factor— and they found it: a psychedelic drug-like viewership experience. This unique selling point transformed the mystery effect into hyper-eeriness, satire jokes into existential voids and tasteful cheerful tracks into unsettling forecasting cues.
The show narrows in on the lives of nine “perfect” strangers, each one with some traumatic baggage of varying gravity, who go on a retreat to reset their conditions under the surveillance of a mysterious female Russian guru, Masha (Kidman). One family struggles to cope after their son’s suicide, two of the guests come to terms with their fading fame, a couple tries to abandon the quick and empty satisfactions of wealth and social media, one misleadingly insecure woman battles with her bursts of violence and a journalist confronts his feelings of queer childhood rejection.
To treat her problematic guests, Masha initiates a controversial “program.” [Spoiler alert!] Though she does follow the same path of confrontation, closure and acceptance as most licensed therapists do, Masha’s modus operandi is a little different: she secretly microdoses her clients with hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD. The issue of consent—or lack thereof—could spark a fiery debate here, but could such drugs actually help with trauma recovery? As with all kinds of treatment, all people and conditions are unique and therefore respond differently to the same treatment. However, while there has yet to be significant data collection, research suggests that it can certainly help some individuals struggling with PTSD and depression.
Of course, hallucinogenic scenes are no new phenomenon in film and TV Think of The Big Lebowski, Midsommar, Maniac, Point Blank or Across the Universe, for instance, which all utilize hypnotic music, head-spinning camera work and tricky plots. Combining the cinematic mastery of confusion and old-school bangers with today’s film technology opens the door to myriad possibilities.
While watching Nine Perfect Strangers, there are noticeable homages to one of cinema’s first mainstream surreal trips, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. The yellow brick road-like paths through the forest, the mysterious Ozian magical figure of Masha who ultimately had human flaws like the others, and the conclusion that all the clients’ solutions to their conditions actually lay within themselves. Like the nine strangers, the psychedelic ambience contributed in carrying us viewers into the bizarre path of acceptance and self-discovery.
In author Michael Pollan’s 2018 book How to Change Your Mind, he experiments with psilocybin to grieve the death of his father. According to his report, he found the drug hugely beneficial in reaching acceptance. Pollan also discusses plants’ natural “symbiotic” relationships with people, their every-day use and potential unexplored benefits, an idea he returned to this summer in his latest book This is Your Mind on Plants. “[The human species uses] them to gratify our desires for everything from nourishment, to beauty, to change of consciousness, ” writes Pollan in the newest work. In This is Your Mind on Plants, the rebellious gardener digs deep into the political history and negative stigma of psychedelic drugs. In part, the U.S. War on Drugs was fueled by the government’s increased concern of a rising counterculture and the absurd “Drink the Kool-Aid '' incidents in the Jonestown cult led by radical socialist Jim Jones in the late 1970s. Today, fifty years later, government paranoia and mass fear of psychedelics appear to have “kooled” down.
Perhaps we’ve reached a turning point in the psychedelic conversation; could its increased use in television result in its normalization? After all, as Pollan points out, is it not just another plant-derivative like coffee and tea (if used in moderation)? The demonization of new, different or foreign concepts is no outlier. Following cannabis, sex and the LGBTQ+ community, television might be slowly contributing to the destigmatization of psychedelic drugs next— and we’re here for it.
NINE PERFECT STRANGERS is now available to stream on Hulu.