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Nicole Kidman leads an ensemble of privileged, disconnected American 'Expats'

Margaret (Nicole Kidman) is an expat American living in Hong Kong, grieving as a mother and a wife.
Prime Video
Margaret (Nicole Kidman) is an expat American living in Hong Kong, grieving as a mother and a wife.

Nicole Kidman has done a lot of different things in film: she's been a horny schemer in Malice, a strong-willed young Irish immigrant in Far and Away, she was even Virginia Woolf in The Hours. But in television, she specializes in women who are rich and haunted. Haunted by a nightmarish marriage in Big Little Lies, haunted by the possibility that her husband is a murderer in The Undoing, and now haunted by a tragedy in Expats, the splashy Amazon series adapted from Janice Y.K. Lee's 2016 novel The Expatriates, about three American women who are not from Hong Kong, but live there.

Kidman plays Margaret, a landscape architect. When we meet her, Margaret seems to be in a fog, barely engaged with her son and daughter, or with her husband, Clarke (Brian Tee). Clarke's job is the reason the family has come from New York to Hong Kong, and at the opening of the series, he's secretly seeking comfort in a church because something bad has happened. When an innocent question about a child named "Gus" causes Margaret to flee a room, the nature of that something bad begins to emerge.

Hilary (Sarayu Blue) lives in the same fancy building as Margaret, and it's clear they've been friends, although now, there is tension between them. Margaret has hurt Hilary somehow, and Hilary is finding it difficult to reconcile. Hilary and her husband, David (Jack Huston), have been trying to have a baby around the edges of her busy professional life and his questionable trustworthiness. Their marriage is in trouble, in both ways Hilary knows about and ways she doesn't, yet.

Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) is a young woman working catering jobs who not infrequently finds herself explaining to people she meets that she isn't local, and isn't Korean but Korean American, and doesn't speak Cantonese. She provides a voiceover prologue to the series that makes it clear that she feels very guilty about something, and that she's having trouble moving on from it.

Production (sour) notes

At this point, it's worth taking a moment to note the lengthy and sometimes stormy history of this production. The Expatriates was published in 2016, and news that Nicole Kidman's production company had acquired the rights emerged in early 2017 — just before the premiere of Big Little Lies on HBO. The final major piece of the Expats puzzle slid into place in late December 2019, when Lulu Wang, just months after the release of her film The Farewell, came on board to direct, write and executive produce "multiple episodes."

During filming in 2021, Kidman and several crew members got an exemption allowing them to avoid the COVID quarantine rules that applied to everyone else upon arrival in Hong Kong. As The New York Times reported at the time, there was anger not only among the city's residents, but in its legislature. It was a bitter pill, it seems, that this production about rich outsiders who paid little attention to the lives of ordinary people in Hong Kong was being given a blessing to hand-wave regulations meant to protect those same ordinary people.

Lulu Wang (center) directs Ji-young Yoo and Nicole Kidman as Mercy and Margaret.
Glen Wilson / Prime Video
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Prime Video
Lulu Wang (center) directs Ji-young Yoo and Nicole Kidman as Mercy and Margaret.

Perhaps most important, filming was taking place — and airing is taking place — during a dangerous and painful time in Hong Kong's history. (It's a massive story defying a quick summary, but one recent update came from NPR's Emily Feng in December. The headline: "Beijing tightens its political grip on Hong Kong.") In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Wang talked about the fact that the show "interrogates privilege" and described how the show was shot during the pandemic. She did not, however, say much about filming and airing a show largely about oblivious rich people when this is the political backdrop.

Of course, given past reporting on how censorship has affected Amazon's content decisions in India, growing censorship laws in Hong Kong, and China's treatment of disfavored speech and groups (again, here's Emily Feng), it's hard to believe Wang and the rest of the writers had anything like a free hand in dealing with politics while they shot in Hong Kong. And nobody seems eager to disclose what the limitations might have been.

If you can't say anything important, should you say nothing at all?

What there is of an effort to address the fraught politics of contemporary Hong Kong comes in the fifth episode, "Central." A double-length installment, it switches the focus to a set of characters we've never or rarely spent time with before: a couple of Hong Kong students, a rich Hong Kong woman who's trying to find a new "helper" for her house, and the two "helpers" who work for Margaret and Hilary's families. Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla) are both Filipina, so they too are far from home, but their circumstances are very different from the ones Margaret and Hilary face. Over the course of one long night that includes a power outage, protests swell ... and then they rather quietly subside. Someone is arrested and it's worrying, but he's unharmed.

The series only occasionally takes a wider view of the city and its population, but the focus unfortunately remains too narrowily focused on a particular kind of expat struggle.
/ Prime Video
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Prime Video
The series only occasionally takes a wider view of the city and its population, but the focus unfortunately remains too narrowly focused on a particular kind of expat struggle.

Maybe it's better than nothing that Expats acknowledges the existence of the strife in Hong Kong, even if it does so very nonspecifically, focusing on the broader notion that there are protests and there is disruption, rather than saying much about what the protests are about. (Again, it's hard not to wonder whether a fairly dispassionate presentation of protests as a historical fact devoid of detail was a freely made choice.) But this episode feels attached to the series like a rabbit's foot to a keychain, more for the blessings it's supposed to bring than for its function. So, maybe it's not better than nothing. Maybe doubling down on the degree to which Hilary and Margaret, in particular, are ignoring the city under their feet would have made more sense.

Margaret and Hilary are selfish, and the existence of the expats we meet implicates them in a variety of destructive systems as they throw parties and talk only to each other, enjoying the parts of life in Hong Kong that are pleasurable and avoiding the parts that are not.

Some of the early publicity around this series suggested that it was a satire. The book may well be a satire, but this series is not a satire. Margaret and Hilary are selfish, and the existence of the expats we meet implicates them in a variety of destructive systems as they throw parties and talk only to each other, enjoying the parts of life in Hong Kong that are pleasurable and avoiding the parts that are not. But mostly, Hilary and Margaret are presented as sympathetic, as our protagonists, guilty of excess but little culpability for their circumstances, much like the women in Big Little Lies. Kidman's gift for portraying the grief that Margaret tries to bury under a layer of ice isn't witty, quite; it's her pain that dominates.

The writing of the series cannot seem to lower its pH and satirize these women, or even to let go of any claim they might have to victimhood. Margaret's passing interest in news reports about crackdowns on protests is distasteful, but it's not connected to her story; it's just a flaw here, like a short temper. In individual moments, our three women — Hilary and Margaret at least — may be presented as insensitive, but that doesn't make the series an incisive critique of them. Sour milk does not satirize the dairy industry just because it tastes bad.

Mercy is a different story. Mercy is interesting, because while she's also an expat, she's quite a different kind. Yoo imbues her with complex, guilt-ridden believability, making her an outwardly confident young woman with an thick hide that she hobbles off to repair after something hurts her. It's the strongest performance in the series, and it's the one that holds up best under the strain of the show's uncertain footing.

Marriage, Privilege, Redux?

David (Jack Huston) and Hilary (Sarayu Blue) navigate a messy marriage.
Jupiter Wong / Prime Video
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Prime Video
David (Jack Huston) and Hilary (Sarayu Blue) navigate a messy marriage.

The most perplexing thing about Expats is that its story has almost nothing to do with the fact that these women are expats. You could pack up this series and fly it to Manhattan, tell the same core stories about these three women (Margaret's loss, Mercy's guilt, Hilary's marriage), and change ... almost nothing. In fact, you could ship it to Monterey to be the third season of Big Little Lies, and it would have a lot in common with the other seasons (tragedy, guilt, marriage).

Perhaps in an effort to avoid saying the wrong thing about expats, or about Hong Kong, Expats winds up saying nothing about those things at all. The insularity of a woman living abroad who doesn't speak the local language is a perhaps ironic mirror of the insularity of a story that doesn't take much notice of its setting other than as scenery.

There was probably a different vision for this show at some point. A vision of it as glamorous and gorgeous and darkly funny (darkly funny like The Farewell was), making affluent people who are expats or even just tourists squirm in recognition. But along the way, it became something far less interesting than that: a good-looking rich-people melodrama. Moreover, it's a project that invites you, right from its title, to be bewildered by its indifference to life in Hong Kong. It's like showing up at a billionaire's house and taking 100 pictures of the koi pond from every angle, while the house is burning down behind you. There's nothing wrong with the photos you've taken, but there is the feeling you could have captured something far more worthy of your attention by just turning your head.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.