The White Lotus is a cutting wealth satire about a hellish holiday
HBO’s limited six-episode series – or as we used to call it in the old days, miniseries – has been described as a comedy-drama. It’s about 20-80 that, but ultimately it is a deeply, darkly tragic story populated by characters who are either entirely unsympathetic or tremendously anguished … or both.
Written and directed by Mike White (Enlightened for HBO, screenplays for movies including School Of Rock and Beatriz At Dinner; he has also competed in The Amazing Race and Survivor: David vs Goliath), The Guardian calls The White Lotus “2021’s best, and most uncomfortable, TV show”.
The setting is idyllic: a Hawaiian resort where our players are seeking rest and relaxation, and the staff greet them with plastered-on, broad smiles and cheerful waves as their boat docks. However, the opening scene of episode 1 – Arrivals – at the airport a week earlier has already alerted us to the fact someone dies. For the next six hours, until the final episode titled Departures, we speculate whose body is in that plain cardboard box dismally marked “human remains”. Good luck figuring it out: that information is saved for almost the very end.
Newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) are at what is promised to be Hawaii’s most romantic hotel, to enjoy their honeymoon. It doesn’t take long for us to realise Shane is a complete and utter chop (or “unrepentant asshole” according to Vulture), and the cracks in their relationship had been lightly covered with the polyfilla of a magical and lavish wedding.
The Mossbacher family – mom Nicole (Connie Britton), dad Mark (Steve Zahn), daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) – each have their issues and challenges, from trying to hold the family together, a cancer scare, and a long-held secret, to friendship rivalry and a yearning to find a place in the world.
Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) is emotionally damaged and needy, and also a bit off with the fairies; some of the other characters want to give her a wide berth, but one of them sees her as someone who will save her, her hopes and dreams for a better future overriding the very obvious crazy.
Central to all the stories is Armond (Murray Bartlett), the resort manager. He is a recovering drug addict who has been sober for five years, but he is pushed to his very limits by the guests, Shane in particular, who is whining and needling about being accommodated in the wrong room. The entitlement and privilege of the wealthy, and yes, white, guests are not to be overlooked in this social satire.
There are so many moments where you’ll think “is he really going to go there…oh my word, yes he is”, and it has not gone unnoticed by fans of the show, that there’s a bit of a Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel) vibe going on. “If he were on a downer,” commented a Twitter user.
“A balmy idea of heaven quickly becomes a clammy vision of hell and a promised getaway for us, and the characters of The White Lotus, takes us closer to, rather than further away from, the many problems that so many of us have been grappling with. Sipping cocktails by the pool and learning to scuba-dive are soon replaced with uneasy discussions about race, consent and privilege, with no one let off the hook, including us,” says The Guardian.
The New Yorker agrees The White Lotus is one of the best shows of the year: “The White Lotus is an examination of what happens when the veneer of conventional sociability dissolves and the power struggles stoked by race, class, and gender erupt from beneath the surface of everyday life.”
Whenever you might think you know where this show is headed, it careens somewhere unexpected, says Vulture. “Tonally, it’s a piña colada spiked with arsenic, or maybe a Bloody Mary with a generous dash of actual blood.”
The White Lotus is well-crafted, intelligent television with an acceptable – necessary even – level of unease and discomfort, and we’re here for it.