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Four series that drop a stranger into a strange land and watch the tension build

An illustration showing scenes from four series.
Scenes of four series — “Shogun,” “Tokyo Vice,” “Monsieur Spade” and “Expats.”
(Illustration by María Medem)
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Fish-out-of-water setups have generated laughs for at least seven centuries, when Chaucer mentioned “Fish that is waterless” in the introduction to “The Canterbury Tales.” In the modern era, TV sitcoms from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Ted Lasso” have played the clueless outsider card to great comedic effect. This Emmy season, dramas — both limited and ongoing — pushed those awkward scenarios to darker purposes by parachuting English-speaking characters into foreign countries. Besides offering up beautiful locales, these series’ interloping protagonists spark culture-clash narratives brimming with refreshingly diverse casts.

Here’s a snapshot of four recent shows that extract maximum drama from the misadventures of strangers in a strange land.

An Englishman wears a kimono and stands in a garden in "Shogun."
“Shogun’s” John Blackthorne began his time in Japan being considered a “barbarian.”
(Katie Yu/FX)
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‘厂贬翱骋鲍狈’
FX / Hulu

Adapted from James Clavell’s 1970 bestseller by Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo, the story takes place in feudal Japan circa 1590.

The Stranger hails from: England

Why he’s in Japan: Ship’s pilot John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) accidentally winds up in Japan after his storm-battered ship washes up on shore.

Speaks the language? No. The language barrier yields comic relief each time Blackthorne spews Anglo-Saxon obscenities at his uncomprehending Japanese captors, as when he calls one adversary “a sniveling little s—bag.” Blackthorne’s ignorance of the language and customs serves a dramatic purpose as he forges a special bond with his translator, Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai).

Foreign concept: The Eight-fold Fence. As explained by Mariko to the hot-headed Blackthorne, women are conditioned to conceal their true feelings behind an impenetrable barrier. Blackthorne’s consort Usami Fuji (Moeka Hoshi), for example, sheds no visible tears after her husband and infant child are killed for “family honor” reasons by a warlord.


A man rides in a car through Tokyo's neon lights in "Tokyo Vice."
Ansel Elgort stars in “Tokyo Vice.”
(HBO Max)

‘TOKYO VICE’
Max

Based on Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir, “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan,” and executive produced by “Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann, the series was filmed on location in Japan’s capital city.

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The Stranger hails from: Missouri

Why he’s in Tokyo: Conspicuously tall and white, newspaper reporter Jake (Ansel Elgort) has relocated to Japan driven by his fascination with the culture in general and Yakuza organized crime gangs in particular.

Speaks the language? Yes. Elgort studied Japanese four hours a day for a month until he became fluent enough to improvise dialogue.

Foreign concept: Hostess clubs. These night spots are patronized by men who pay fully dressed women to converse, flirt and drink.

Local color: Scooters and noodle shops abound day and night in a city that apparently never sleeps. And tattoos play a starring role in the Yakuza subculture, showcased when criminals with bodies inked from head to toe gather in a public bathhouse to kill their psychotic leader.

In over his head: Jake carries on a secret affair with the mistress of a sadistic Yakuza crime boss.


A man outside in trench coat and hat stares to the side suspiciously in "Monsieur Spade."
Clive Owen stars as Sam Spade in “Monsieur Spade.”
(Black Bear / AMC)

‘MONSIEUR SPADE’
AMC

Catching up with Dashiell Hammett’s famously world-weary detective two decades after his “Maltese Falcon” heyday, co-creators Scott Frank and Tom Fontana imagine Sam Spade (Clive Owen) living quietly in the South of France.

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The Stranger hails from: San Francisco

Why he’s in France: Spade in 1955 delivers precocious orphan Teresa (Ella Feraud) to the village of Bozouls. There, he falls in love and marries a beautiful vineyard owner, Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni), settling into a life of comfort on her estate while keeping a curmudgeonly distance from the locals.

Speaks the language? Non, although he can manage to introduce himself in French: “Je m’apelle Sam Spade.”

Local color: Filmed on location in the South of France, “Spade” contrasts sun-dappled country vistas with ancient Bozouls’ dark, narrow streets.

Provincial antagonists: Spade comes out of retirement in 1963 after murderers assault the local convent where Teresa has been living. Half a dozen shadowy characters try and fail to intimidate the deadpan detective, who ingratiates himself to nobody in town except lounge owner Marguerite (Louise Bourgoin). Even the chief of police, Patrice Michaud (Denis Ménochet), warns the wise-cracking Spade, “You might want to protect yourself with something more reliable than just your wits.”


Two women, one holding an umbrella, walk outside on a rainy night in "Expats."
Bonde Sham and Ji-young Yoo star in “Expats.”
(Prime Video)

‘贰齿笔础罢厂’
Prime Video

Inspired by Janice Y.K. Lee’s novel “The Expatriates,” series creator Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) explores grief, guilt and motherhood through the lives of three women temporarily residing in Hong Kong.

The Strangers hail from: New York and L.A.

Why Hong Kong: Nicole Kidman’s Margaret moved with her three kids to Hong Kong because husband Clarke’s (Brian Tee) promotion required a job transfer. Sarayu Blue’s Hilary, who changed her name from Harpreet Singh, also moved because of her husband’s work. Fringe benefit: Hong Kong puts distance between Hilary and her hyper-critical mother. Ji-young Yoo’s Columbia University graduate Mercy traveled to Hong Kong for a fresh start.

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Speak the language? Minimally, except for the bilingual Yoo.

Local color: Night market. The city’s wild thicket of street vendors serves as the setting for the show’s central tragedy. “Expats” was shot in Hong Kong during the pandemic, when COVID restrictions limited filmmakers’ access to normally bustling public spaces.

Foreign concept: Wealth, not geography, defines the families-for-hire dynamic familiar to “Expats.” Margaret thinks of her Filipina nanny Essie (Ruby Ruiz) as family while Hilary, bereft over fertility issues and browbeaten by her mother, comes to see housekeeper Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla) as her only friend.

Living in a bubble: “Expats” takes place in 2014 during the island nation’s “Umbrella Revolution.” Margaret and Hilary, ensconced in their luxury condo perches, barely notice the pro-democracy student protests. When the revolution does take center stage in one episode, Mercy’s Hong Kong friend Charly (Bonde Sham) scolds her: “It isn’t your fight and never was. You’re a tourist. It doesn’t affect your future. Not really. You can just leave.”

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