Mike White's HBO miniseries travels to a vacation resort full of bitter resentment and awkward self-discovery.

By Darren Franich
July 07, 2021 at 04:47 PM EDT
Advertisement
The-White-Lotus
'The White Lotus'
| Credit: Mario Perez/HBO

Hell is other people, but at least The White Lotus finds a beautiful hell in the Pacific. The six-part tourist satire (premiering July 11 on HBO) was filmed on glorious Maui while the world plagued. The cast looks gorgeous even when their characters fall to pieces. They're guests at the titular resort, a Loco Moco never-never land overseen by manager Armond (Murray Bartlett). He's a fast-talking marvel in a fruit-punch suit, and he wants every new arrival to feel like "the special chosen baby child of the hotel."

In the premiere, Armond welcomes the latest batch of "chosen" ones. Newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy) have all the money (specifically, Shane's money). Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton) is a tech exec, and her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), is totally fine with making much less than she does, totally. Their daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), reads Nietzsche at the pool and models ninth-wave feminism between ASMR-gasms. Her awkward teenage brother, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), is the kind of screen addict who swims with his Switch. They all arrive on the same boat as Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a lonely seeker carrying her mother's ashes in a plastic bag.

Armond's fussy attentiveness to his guests prepares you for a vacation farce. With his mustache, the amazing Bartlett actually resembles an Australian Basil Fawlty. The series is cackle-out-loud funny at times, but minor irritations also spiral into tragedy. A suite mix-up edges Shane and Armond towards psychological warfare. Olivia travels with her college friend Paula (Brittany O'Grady), and their drug supply would impress Hunter S. Thompson. There is a cancer scare, an unexpected visitor, and an inconveniently timed birth. A prologue flash-forward reveals someone at some point will die somehow. Tanya finds mindful respite with Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who manages the spa. They spark a friendship — or is it just an especially in-depth transactional relationship? "I know a lot of rich white f---ed-up people," Tanya tells Belinda. "They could really use you!" You sense the compliment's accidental threat. Use you, sure, and use you up.

Creator Mike White was last on HBO with his anti-corporate fairy tale Enlightened, a great show with a great episode about feeling not great in Hawaii. A sea turtle cameo in The White Lotus will satisfy all seven of us Enlightened fans. This spiritual sequel is glossier... and nastier. The Mossbachers initially come off as grotesques of private-jet liberalism. I adore Lacy, and I adore how his face is worth a thousand synonyms for smarm. The series' palette is lush, but even the luaus are sad. "Watching all the Hawaiians have to dance for all these white people that stole their islands?" says Paula. "It's depressing." She's the only nonwhite guest, and her sweet romance with employee Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) turns bitter.

It could all just be a midsummer soapy-mystery treat: Big Little Lies on the Beach. If you haven't guessed, though, with The White Lotus, White's got whiteness on his mind. This is a cringe comedy where the awkwardness is racially systemic. "Look, obviously, imperialism was bad," Mark says in a typical bit of dinner chatter. (Zahn's line reading is so cosmic and silly; it might be the apex of his career.)

In this self-dissection of wealthy Caucasian self-awareness, some subplots are just navel-gazing. Rachel's dawning perception of her trophy wifery is a .01-percenter character arc that makes Succession look like The Jungle. Quinn's life-renewing friendship with nameless locals approaches Aloha-ish stereotype. The theme-heavy dialogue occasionally has the strident tone of Twitter clapbacks read aloud. (Maybe that's just how people talk now?) Everyone will be offended by something; some will be offended by everything.

Still, I got wrapped up in the dreamy dramedy. Looking's Bartlett stuns as a tightly wound perfectionist falling way off the wagon. Rothwell, hysterical on Insecure, goes 180 degrees as a wellness worker bee carrying the weight of moneyed sorrow. Coming off The Handmaid's Tale, Sharp Objects, and Euphoria, Sweeney confirms herself as the generational representative for soulful perversity. She is for Peak TV what Chloë Sevigny was for Peak Indie. And what a nice surprise to see Coolidge playing her grande-dame act in a minor key, revealing the emotional scars beneath Tanya's helpless vanity.

White passionately believes ridiculous people are capable of profound epiphanies, which means his least likable characters can break your heart. But on The White Lotus, epiphanies won't save the day. Every person is an island, and the waters are rising. B+

Related content:

Comments