Mike White returns to HBO on July 11, eight years after the end of his brilliant “Enlightened,” with the tropical dramedy “The White Lotus,” an engaging 6-episode series that has a great cast, smart dialogue, and just enough laughs, even if it feels a little unable to transcend its set-ups every now and then. Perhaps more damagingly for its potential to reach a larger audience, it asks people to spend a great deal of time with a group of relatively unlikable people (one of whom may be the most toxically abrasive person on TV this year). Still, White’s overall love for the outsider and even his empathy for some of the insiders carry the project to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a little minor for White, who wrote and directed every episode, but it’s very well-acted and ambitious enough to make it a memorable trip.
White is once again examining the concept of enlightenment and almost finding it more fleeting than ever. On vacations, enlightenment can come quickly and just as quickly be left at the border. Fancy resorts engender life-examining insight, but it’s often difficult to incorporate back into daily life, especially for people on a social tier where their every need is catered to. So while White is back in his thematic wheelhouse, the enlightenment here sometimes feels pretty cynical. White seems to engage with the idea that enlightenment in a place like The White Lotus is inherently impermanent for most people, the rich folk who take a week to look inward and then turn outward again when they return to the real world often leaving victims along the way.
At first, “The White Lotus” feels like a variation on “Upstairs, Downstairs,” a social satire that contrasts the workers at a high-priced Hawaiian resort with the people staying there for a week. (That element remains throughout, but this is more than mere class commentary as White maintains some sympathy for people on both sides.) White adds fun tension by opening near the story’s ending as newlywed Shane (Jake Lacy) meets a couple at the airport who have heard about a murder at the hotel he stayed at for the last week. In fact, they’re loading the body onto the plane as they speak. And where’s Shane’s wife? Viewers know that someone is going to be a victim and someone is going to be a killer as the series then flashes back a week to Shane’s arrival at the titular resort—the funny thing being how nearly anyone could fit either description as the tension unfolds from episode to episode, culminating in a great pair of closing hours.
“The White Lotus” primarily follows three sets of visitors and the workers who circle them, catering to their every need. There’s the aforementioned Shane, an entitled baby man who throws fit after fit at the hotel, which he’s attending with his new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario, doing career-best work), who slowly realizes she just wed a garbage person who thought he got a trophy and she’s not ready to stop being a real person. The couple isn’t checked into the room they thought they were getting, and so Shane basically torments the hotel manager Armond (likely fan favorite Murray Bartlett) instead of enjoying his honeymoon and then gets more toxic from there. Armond tells a new staff member (Jolene Purdy) in the premiere that he’s basically catering to spoiled children, and he’s mastered his ability to put on a smile and say what people want to hear…well, until Shane pushes him past his breaking point.
It’s not hard to see Shane and Rachel becoming Nicole (Connie Britton) and Mark (Steve Zahn) in twenty years. The wealthy couple have brought their children—the toxically un-self-aware Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and moody Quinn (Fred Hechinger)—along with their daughter’s friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) to this wealthy paradise, but they have constant trouble enjoying their trip. Nicole and Mark are fascinating characters, the kind of people who rail against people talking about their privilege but are constantly using it to their advantage. Nicole is one of those women who defines herself by playing the victim while Mark waffles from interest to interest, seemingly shaken out of his routine in nearly every episode but never for long. He has a cancer scare, family secret, and even an act of violence in these six episodes, but it feels like none of it has an impact beyond his next drink. And the scenes in which Mark and Nicole discuss cultural shifts with their kids are fantastically scripted. They think the world is shifting against them even as they experience every benefit of it. Let’s just say they would totally have voted for Obama a third time.
Finally, the troubled Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) has come to the island to spread her mother’s ashes and basically emotionally spiral in the process. Tanya connects with a kind spa worker named Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and even suggests financially backing the opening of her own spa. It’s not a spoiler to say that Tanya’s privileged flightiness gives the Belinda arc tension on its own—one can just sense that there’s no way things will work out in Belinda’s favor. They rarely do. However, White handles the inevitable crash here in an interesting manner.
In the first half of the season, some of the set-ups feel a bit sitcomish, exaggerated scenarios to amplify the show’s humor. White is at his best when he moves away from those clichés, often in dialogue scenes around fancy dinner tables or between increasingly drunk characters at pool bars. He also directs his cast incredibly well, drawing great work from Bartlett, Zahn, and Daddario, who gives the most nuanced role of her career (let’s hope it leads to more work like this). He also gives Coolidge a more nuanced character than she’s usually allowed, but he saves most of his affection for the workers at The White Lotus who are used and abused on a weekly basis by people who won’t remember their names by the time their flights land back at home. Tanya tells Belinda at one point that she doesn’t need another “transactional relationship” in her life and the truth is that every relationship for these people is transactional, even the ones between newlyweds and those who have been married for decades.
Not every character feels as rich as Rachel or Mark—it’s particularly disappointing that Purdy, a center of the premiere, literally just disappears (although that could be part of White’s point regarding the disposability of these workers)—and not every thread connects as one would hope. But that’s not atypical for White. He often avoids periods or exclamation points, allowing his characters to end their arcs with ellipses instead. [B]