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TV is better for having White working in it, though it’s worth warning that the six-episode The White Lotus is, in many ways, more a successor to his subversively trashy 2001 Fox soap opera Pasadena than to Enlightened, the rare HBO classic that’s genuinely underrated. A snapshot of awfully rich people doing awfully awful things, White Lotus is delightfully mean-spirited and unexpectedly big-hearted in ways that will probably polarize some audiences. I found it vibrantly messy and deceptively emotional, a show that I wasn’t convinced was working after one episode and that I didn’t want to end after six.
The series, written and directed entirely by White, is set over the course of one week at the eponymous isolated luxury resort in Hawaii. The guests are varying shades of white, varying degrees of well-to-do and varying levels of insufferable. There are the Mossbachers — tech CEO Nicole (Connie Britton), amiably emasculated hubby Mark (Steve Zahn), college-aged daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her best friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), plus confusingly disconnected teenage son Quinn (Fred Hechinger). There are newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who look so pretty together nobody has noticed how thoroughly unsuited they are for each other. And wandering around in a daze is Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), clutching her mother’s ashes and looking for meaning.
Providing service with a smile — or at least tolerantly listening to unreasonable complaints — are the White Lotus’ manager Armond (Murray Bartlett, channeling Basil Fawlty plunked down in the real world) and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who may be the only fundamentally good person on the show.
Oh, and did I mention that The White Lotus starts in medias res with a box labeled “Human Remains” being loaded onto a plane? As with most vacations, nobody is actually returning from Hawaii well-rested and spiritually rejuvenated, and somebody’s returning in a casket. After all of the backstabbing, sociological noodling, scuba lessons, drug use and questionable sex, you might not find any characters here whom you actually like — I did, though rarely for the reasons I expected to — but you’ll definitely find yourself rooting for different people to become that mystery corpse, in which case you’re more like the characters in The White Lotus than you’ll want to admit.
For all of the soapy misadventures in the foreground — driven by the spectacularly percussive and primal score from Cristobal Tapia de Veer — lingering in the background is the Enlightened-esque quandary of what it takes to be happy if simply being rich is no longer enough. What are the extremes that you’ll go to in order to restore your sense of control if you aren’t cynical enough to realize that the natural state of humanity is that we’re all animals? If The White Lotus is an anthropological study of what happens to civilized people if you plunk them down in the wilderness and, despite a lavish breakfast buffet and facial treatments, let them go feral, maybe the Mike White show this most closely resembles is actually Survivor?
HBO is calling the hour-long White Lotus both a limited series and a social satire, though it’s no more or less overtly “funny” than Succession, a somewhat thematically compatible “drama” (for Emmy purposes) that’s really a dark comedy about the insulation and isolation that can make embarrassing wealth seem like a form of mental illness. Like Succession, The White Lotus is selectively amusing, more in the second half of the season than the first, though it may be harder for some viewers to laugh because it cuts closer to the bone than Succession. You will never be a member of the Roy family, because Succession positions them in an unfathomable economic stratum. But with careful financial planning or optimistic research, many more people could imagine spending a week, or at least a weekend, at a Hawaiian resort. So if these are the monsters, the monsters may be us.
You’re supposed to watch The White Lotus with a jaded gaze, thinking these people aren’t you until you realize the ways they are. At the same time, you’re supposed to be aware that even as White is eviscerating the trappings of white privilege and touristic colonialism and performative wokeness, he’s making a show that exists entirely because of the lengths HBO will go to in order to turn a Hawaiian resort into a quarantined set if you’re Mike White and this is your group of friends. Discomfort, within the show and directed at the show, is intended and visceral.
But what a group of friends White has brought to this privileged party! Bartlett (Looking), working himself into a hilarious frenzy over the course of six hours, towers obsequiously and venomously over a series in which even the cast members that initially feel like weak links grow on you. Take Hechinger’s journey from early-episode annoyance to later-episode strength, or the way Daddario, placid and meek in the early going, reveals a depth by the last episode that should redefine how audiences and casting directors see her. Britton is a frazzled, brittle, almost villainous pleasure; Lacy nails another variation on a detestable eternal frat boy; Sweeney is withering, deadpan fun; and Molly Shannon, popping up for the second half of the season, remains one of White’s best-used muses.
Coolidge deserves separate notice. Long a master of a certain kind of air-headed, boozy characterization best suited to scene-stealing short bursts, she’s given the chance here to find the crushed, lost soul at the center of that archetype, and of the show. This is the Jennifer Coolidge performance to end all Jennifer Coolidge performances, and even if you want to throttle nearly every character in the series, her scenes with Rothwell and Jon Gries are worth sticking around for.
There are so many moving pieces in The White Lotus and so many tonal detours — plus a couple of shock-for-the-sake-of-shock visuals — that you may take time to settle into the show. Stick with it for the performances, for the golden-hued Hawaii visuals, because de Veer’s music takes hold and doesn’t let go, and for the flagellation of that part of yourself that deserves a good mocking.
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