There’s something vaguely unsettling about taking a vacation these days. It’s something that I recently did, and it’s a supremely strange (not to mention guilt-inducing) experience to hop on a plane (for leisure) with everything that’s swirling about for humanity. Yet when I really thought about it, there’s frequently something a little bit “off” when one spends more than a few nights at a hotel. Sure, you’re there for rest-and-relaxation and to forget about life’s daily stresses, but the unshakeable stuff can tag along. Relationship friction and resentment don’t miraculously smooth themselves out when one is in proximity to a body of water, after all, nor does the grief associated with the death of a loved one. The urge for some to self-medicate also doesn’t evaporate and, in fact, that temptation can run wild without the structure of daily life to intervene. Even if you’ve had a fairly run-of-the-mill vacation with zero drama, there’s still the make-believe feel of the situation; so when your paradise-buzz evaporates once an airline puts you on a ten-hour delay for your first flight home (true story), the idea of vacation feels even more surreal.
“Surreal” is one way to describe HBO’s The White Lotus, the new limited series created, written, and directed by Mike White (Enlightenment, School of Rock), which happens to organize itself around the lavish getaways of the One Percent while the hotel staffers serve their every whim. That means that this brand of clientele is fairly insufferable and incredibly spoiled and, somehow, mostly miserable, whether they acknowledge it to themselves, or not; and they’re not psyched (as I was) to order French toast from the wonderful brunch waiter whose name popped up in almost every online review of their hotel. Instead, these people often have a (ridiculous) ax to grind while the action almost exclusively goes down at an eponymous, impossibly posh Hawaiian resort. Oh boy, does Mike White enjoys positioning them over a slow-burning flame while they cannot escape themselves while descending into inexplicable misery. This may not sound like fun to watch, but White’s assembled vacationers are brutally awful in many ways.
The series (quite delightfully) skewers the ultra-wealthy in what turns out to be a riveting satire (both sprawling in its breadth and self-contained in its brevity) on how obscene wealth rots everything that it touches. The approach is one that Succession fans will surely enjoy, and while the setup feels like The Love Boat or Fantasy Island had a lovechild with Agatha Christie (there is a murder), rest assured that these absurdly wealthy subjects nail themselves into their own virtual coffins. In The White Lotus, it’s as if the surreal surroundings, the escape from reality, is what exposes these guests’ real selves. It’s like a refined Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls, if the meanest of girls was a tantrum-y Jake Lacy as Shane, who we meet at the beginning of the series. He’s an overgrown, trust-fund brat and a honeymooner whose wife clearly did not think this marriage through. Rest assured, you will enjoy plenty of Alexandra Daddario as Rachel throughout the season, but Shane? He’s a piece of work.
Right from the start with Shane, we realize that something’s not right, which leads to the tee-up of the murder-mystery subplot. Yet White pulls the rug out from under his audience (as he’s known to do) because murder’s not actually the main course in this series, although it sure feels delicious to speculate on who met their early demise (and whodunnit) during this week-in-the-life season. We receive a tapestry of interwoven stories of these well-to-doers, which include not only Shane but also the Massbacher family, which includes Mark (Steve Zahn), who’s clearly nursing an inferiority complex in the face of his wife, Nicole (Connie Britton), who’s all business, even with her family. Their college-aged daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) has a tagalong friend, Paula (Brittany O’Brady), and they’re a real hoot of a pair, judging the adults with little mercy, even as they don’t seem to have a problem participating in the monetary debauchery.
Recurring appearances by Lukas Gage and Molly Shannon do draw focus, but there are two real stars here:
1. Murray Bartlett: He portrays Armond, the resort manager/presiding master of ceremonies, who sees and hears and knows and observes everything. He is the soul of the show, and I’m here to tell you that this is one conflicted and questionable soul. Bartlett easily straddles a wide spectrum to embrace this role, that of a wheeler and dealer, and a person of marginalized status, who must grit his inner teeth and serve the ultrarich despite hating their behavior as much as anyone else. He’s the person who inherently, for better or worse, understands those who visit the White Lotus, much more than they understand themselves. You’ll root for Murray while, quite possibly, strongly disliking him at times. Long and rambling pieces could one day be written about this character and his intimate knowledge of how power and money corrupt.
2. Jennifer Coolidge: She effortlessly steps into the role of Tanya, and goddamn, I’m not sure why she hasn’t received more recognition for being a great character actress whose list of credits does not stop. I’ve adored her since Legally Blonde, and despite entering the series as a boozy, utter mess, we soon learn that she’s attempting to gain closure from a tragedy. Coolidge gives a deeply funny performance that’s also heartbreaking at times. In short, she’s the woman who one you’d never want to be trapped with on a boat, yet her performance is nothing short of magnetic.
That, in a nutshell, is also how I feel about The White Lotus. It’s full of characters that one would never choose to spend time with, yet as a whole, the story presents a fascinating spectacle. The series is deeply funny and occasionally disturbing while managing to simultaneously repel and enrapture viewers. It’s also possible, strangely enough, to both love and hate this show at the same time and during different moments, but once you’re through the second episode or so, the show’s quite difficult to cease watching. You’ll be glad to have checked into this weird-ass series. It’s a trip.
HBO’s ‘The White Lotus’ premieres on HBO and HBO Max on June 11.