A lush, exotic resort, a gaggle of blinkered white tourists, and a dead body in the middle: You’d be forgiven for seeing the parallels between “The White Lotus” and Hulu’s latest limited series, “Saint X.”
Based on the acclaimed 2020 novel by Alexis Schaitkin, “Saint X,” on paper, subverts the typical patterns of this kind of story. The show intercuts between the tragic tale of two sisters separated by life and time: one in the past, hurtling toward impending death, and the other in the present, struggling to move on from said tragedy.
In 2005, Alison Thomas (West Duchovny, daughter of David) and her upper-middle-class family fly to a Caribbean resort to soak in the sun, the piña coladas, and (for Alison) the many boys, both guest and employee, she can cavort with before she heads to Princeton in the fall. “This is our chance to try on someone new,” she gushes to her shy seven-year-old sister, Claire, who’s just old enough to idolize her big sister while being blind to her foibles. But on their last night before departing, Alison disappears, and authorities find her body a few days later.
Cut to the present, and Claire now goes by Emily (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who’s living in New York and trying to put Alison’s death—and the media firestorm that followed—behind her. But circumstances put her back in the path of one of the two Black resort employees suspected of doing it (Josh Bonzie’s Clive “Gogo” Richardson), and her obsession with answers grows. “The whole world knows more than I do” about her sister’s murder, she confesses, and she needs to know what truly happened.
Of course, one of the refreshing appeals of Schaitkin’s book was that it refused to offer that kind of closure. The point wasn’t to solve Alison’s murder but to examine how these people—not just Emily/Claire, but the dozens of folks whose worlds were shattered as a result—move on with their lives in the absence of such clarity. Hulu’s version, courtesy of writer/EP/showrunner Leila Gerstein, steers us toward a much more definitive answer, and is far less interesting as a result.
The journey, at least, allows us to explore the intermingling of grief, obsession, race, class, and wealth, especially given the differing way Alison’s death impacts those on both sides of the mystery. This is most potent when we actually get to see Clive’s side of the story: his lifelong friendship with gregarious fellow suspect Edwin (Jayden Elijah, also great), the difficult courtship with the mother of his child, Sara (Bre Francis), the way the arrival of a resort and his strict Christian upbringing conflict with the life he may want to live instead. Bonzie is compelling to watch, eyes racked with inner pain. It helps that he’s one of the few actors to carry over to both timelines without contending with hokey old-age makeup (looking at you, Michael Park and Betsy Brandt as Claire and Alison’s parents).
The fractured structure does the show no favors, either, with scenes haphazardly flitting back and forth between 2005 and 2023. On top of that, certain interludes flashback to the immediate aftermath of Alison’s disappearance and multiple flashbacks of Edwin and Clive as children. With this much material to juggle and so much screentime to luxuriate in it, “Saint X” really suffers in its first half as the audience struggles to orient themselves or care about the thin characters in front of them.
Ultimately, “Saint X” feels like a show about privilege, about the impotent flailing somewhat-woke white people do when they’re aware of their advantages but desperately want to free themselves from them. Alison excoriates her parents about the exploitation inherent to resort life but quickly grows accustomed to the amenities anyway. Claire barely hides her sense of progressive pride at moving to the Caribbean part of New York City, as if fetishizing her Black neighborhood makes up for her role in gentrifying it.
But these explorations of privilege are relatively thin, made more repetitive by the show’s laborious runtime and commitment to its host of side characters. Alison’s story intersects with a bevy of white dudes, young and middle-aged, who catch her eye but offer little in the way of character, while Claire’s supporting cast—co-workers, boyfriends, therapists, etc.—become mere mouthpieces for her own single-minded obsession. It’s hard not to feel like you’re just running out the clock, waiting for the eventual answers to come or not come; the characters aren’t interesting enough to stick around for.
You can feel the elements that made “Saint X” such a compelling novel become stretched, flattened, and dissipated by the show’s too-leisurely approach. It’s the kind of series that feels like it’s filling time, desperate to stretch what could have been a tight, haunting two-hour tale into six hours of repetitive drudgery. Even when it threatens to become more interesting by the end, it cribs stylistically from other doomed-love tragedies like “Moonlight,” right down to a beachside flirtation that practically borrows the same shot compositions. There are glimmers here that interrogate the typical white-woman-in-peril narrative. Just not enough to make the show stand out from the oodles of examples it’s riffing on.
Whole series screened for review. “Saint X” premieres April 26th on Hulu.