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Early in the COVID pandemic, the phrase “nature is healing” began to be used in earnest — shorthand for the way the lockdown contributed to a measurable drop in air pollution as well as a rise in unexpected urban cameos by wild animals, until then scared into seclusion by man-made cacophony. In the midst of global misery, it was a sign of something resembling hope, evidence that we hadn’t screwed up the planet beyond recognition.
Months later, as with all things online, irony had replaced sincerity and “nature is healing” became a punchline for any signs of resumed frivolity, however dumb. The bakery ran out of Cronuts? Nature is healing! The evening commute returned to gridlock? Nature is healing! Netflix canceled a show despite an infuriating cliffhanger ending? Nature is healing! This too was a sign of something resembling hope: Here was proof that the many months in isolation because of a deadly virus hadn’t left us unable to take umbrage at the little things, the human things.
Occupying a strange middle ground between earnest and ironic is TV’s latest programming fixation, with a number of shows acknowledging, in micro, the possibility that, in macro, we all might be horribly broken. Were the ruptures caused by COVID? By Trump? By fictional composites we all know are standing in for COVID or Trump? It hardly matters because if last summer was all about wallowing in our shared misery through Zoom-produced TV specials and charity-driven cast reunions, TV this summer is about recovery and the ways that nature — in this usage a balm like aloe vera — is healing.
You may have noticed, if you watch entirely too much TV, that the best show of the summer (HBO’s The White Lotus), the most star-studded show of the summer (Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers) and the highest-profile broadcast scripted drama of the summer (Fox’s Fantasy Island, with the caveat that it sets a low bar) are all the same show.
Not one of these shows deals directly with a world’s hopeful emergence from a global pandemic, but that idea is baked into their themes and even into their productions. HBO commandeered a hotel in Maui for The White Lotus. Nine Perfect Strangers picked up its team of A-listers and moved them to Australia. Fox locked down a beach in Puerto Rico for Fantasy Island. That the shows exist at all is, in and of itself, a sign that Hollywood is healing (by getting far away from Hollywood).
Fantasy Island isn’t the best of the shows — as Tattoo, who has been written out of the reboot, might say, “It’s plain!” — but its source material, the original series starring Ricardo Montalbán as island overseer Mr. Roarke, is the clear template for all of them. Take fractured souls and bring them to a maritime location under the watch of a snappy caretaker — Roselyn Sánchez in her white suits, Murray Bartlett with his tropical shirts and Nicole Kidman and a Russian accent are all of an embellished piece — and let the recuperation begin.
On the most superficial level, in these three shows our collective societal maladies are an anxious stand-in for COVID, the ocean is an aquatic vaccine, and the various wannabe Roarkes are Dr. Fauci.
Actually, no — on the most superficial level, all three shows make the argument that goes something along the lines of “Dear Lord, I’ve been locked up in my house/apartment since early 2020, and what I need, more than anything, is a vacation.” The White Lotus suggests something close to this, which is part of why it’s so complicated. Perhaps because creator Mike White’s idea of a vacation is to compete on The Amazing Race or Survivor, White Lotus grasps the way vacations promise the remedy for what ails us. But it knows too that they’re usually chockablock with failed whimsical activities and leave us in cramped quarters with our families or spouses, forced into strange interactions with hospitality employees who hate us, we suspect, or, at the least, judge the books we brought for the purpose of looking smart when we sit by the pool.
There’s no way a week at a Hawaiian resort is going to cure what’s wrong with the main characters in The White Lotus. They’re plagued by nothing less than modernity — everything from white privilege to enlarged testicles to the pressures endured by high-flying professional women and the soul-sucking monotony of freelance journalism. And they have the narcissism to believe that their problems can be cured with scuba lessons, a good massage, recreational drugs and a resort manager who’s basically a kinkier Basil Fawlty. It’s no wonder that Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya is both the most relatable and the most curable character on the show: Her problem is sadness, and what she wants, more than anything, is to get laid.
Tanya’s a character on The White Lotus, but she could just as easily be a contestant on CBS’ Love Island, which, let’s face it, is another show in the Fantasy Island vein (along with HBO Max’s barely more polished FBoy Island). Every participant on Love Island professes to wanting love and to being on the show for the “right reasons,” but they’re sadder than anybody on The White Lotus because they’re all out-of-practice sex dolls who don’t know that they’re being made fun of by the Love Island version of Roarke, the show’s increasingly irritated narrator.
Neither Love Island nor The White Lotus is exactly cynical so much as realistic, which might be why I find their version of healing so much more resonant than anything in Fantasy Island or Nine Perfect Strangers.
In David E. Kelley’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s Strangers, mental health is treated as a parlor game in which each of nine guests at a ritzy seaside spa has a secret ailment and the wholly unqualified majordomo — Kidman’s Masha, a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a gauzy halo — is under the impression that between counseling, nonconsensual drug administration, potato sack races and trust falls, any psychological crack can be caulked over.
If White Lotus is about getting the most palliative care with the least amount of work, at least it knows the endeavor is folly. Strangers suggests that with an assortment of disjointed treatments, maybe you really can overcome grief or professional insecurity or addiction or relationship estrangement. Your mind is a mystery, one that can be solved with the help of enough Oscar nominees.
I’m not sure why that feels more hollow to me than Fantasy Island, in which the various guests have many of the same problems as the nonet in Nine Perfect Strangers yet are willing to entrust their elusive happiness to a woman whose clinical résumé reads simply, “Inherited a magical island.”
Sánchez’s Elena Roarke lets the island go to town on her guests like a bellboy does on the manager of The White Lotus and, through body-swapping and invisibility and heaping plates of calorie-free sushi, darned if the island doesn’t always know best.
It’s possible that the only show on TV with a more simplistic — and therefore more easily satisfying — approach to conquering ennui than Fantasy Island‘s is Apple TV+’s Schmigadoon! That musical comedy series, whose real gift is its expert pandering to the theater kid in all of us, takes an icy couple — Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong, likable enough to cover for a multiple of scripted sins — and makes the provocative case that the best cure for lost love is … love. Its fans might quibble, but Schmigadoon! is Love Island with classic Broadway song parodies. It’s a show that’s prepared for you to say, “None of this makes practical sense!” And whose rejoinder is, “But neither does an ensemble cast breaking into song and dance … Plus, here’s Aaron Tveit doing Carousel.”
If you want a more realistic take on what might be required to actually help people — onscreen or in the audience — cope with the shared alienation of the past couple of years, that’s what HBO’s In Treatment reboot is for. Maybe Uzo Aduba’s psychotherapist character would have had more success if she’d taken her patients down to Venice Beach instead of relying on the architectural analgesic of the view from her Baldwin Hills home.
A vacation definitely sounds easier than therapy.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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