The White Lotus is HBO’s new comedy/drama miniseries created by Mike White, most known for writing School of Rock and the underrated HBO drama Enlightened. The White Lotus begins with its presumed end, a body being loaded on a plane, a tragic end to a vacation at a beautiful Hawaiian resort. Starting with such a scene primes the audience for a mystery, but The White Lotus is going for more than a murder at the beach. The secret it introduces in its first scene is secondary to the uncomfortable situations and self-reflection that its characters will face while in “paradise.”
The series follows a group of VIPs who arrive at The White Lotus Hotel, an island resort that promises paradise, relaxation, and luxury. The VIPs arrive by boat like conquerors prepping to invade, separating them from regular guests and elevating the kind of service expected by the staff. It is immediately apparent the gulf between the VIPs and the hotel staff, and the juxtaposition of the two drives the great first episode.
The group of distinguished guests includes a middle-aged couple Nicole (Connie Britton), a very wealthy businesswoman, her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), who is not as successful as his wife, and their son (Fred Hechinger), daughter (Sydney Sweeney), and her daughter’s friend (Britney O’Grady). There is the newly married couple, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy), who are probably going to be learning a lot about each other and what their relationship actually is. Jennifer Coolidge plays Tanya McQuoid, a woman on a trip alone who carries her mother’s ashes with her and plans to scatter them in on the island.
The series sets up these VIPs in such a way to pit them against the people that will be serving them. Class and privilege are obvious themes, and the resort is the show’s playground to explore those ideas. The series being set in Hawaii is effective. It confronts the glorified paradise that many view it as, exposing that actual people work and live on these islands but are nothing more than a friendly guide or a concierge for wealthy visitors. Lani (Jolene Purdy), the hotel staff member we meet when the VIPs step foot on the island, hides the fact that she is pregnant and later hides that she was going into labor because she was desperate for the job and couldn’t afford to disclose she was having a baby soon. The class commentary was surprisingly effective and picks at the bubbles its characters reside in, putting them in peculiar positions.
The dreamlike feel of the show makes the vacations and honeymoons that the main characters are on seem primed to turn into a nightmare of realization. For example, Rachel, newly married, basically gets passive-aggressively interrogated by two teenagers whose questions about her life, her new marriage, and her husband add to the uncertainty she is already feeling about her situation. Rachel is also another example of the disconnect between classes — she isn’t from a wealthy family and is now seeing the differences between her sensibilities and her husband, who is used to his privilege. After having her life probed, and the bandaid holding together her doubts about her marriage ripped off by two teens, she realizes she is might just be a trophy wife in an unequal relationship with no way out.
The resort manager, played by Murray Bartlett, puts the resort into perspective, saying they are there to appease their guests by not going above and beyond but drowning them in surface-level comforts, keeping them pacified and content. There’s a funny scene in which Steve Zhan’s character and his aloof son ask to go scuba diving to bond and explore the island. The manager shuts down their scuba dreams, citing safety concerns. Every subsequent suggestion has some sort of excuse attached to it until the manager finally suggests snorkeling in one of the few remaining reefs on the island that turns out is nothing but seaweed. Vacations are about escaping everyday life, but the characters on The White Lotus are being forced to confront what their lives are in funny and uncomfortable ways.
The first episode of The White Lotus is funny, has interesting ideas, and sets up its commentary well. The question is, can it sustain itself over its run. Will the laughs be big enough, and will the social commentary land over six episodes. Avenue 5, HBO’s Space resort comedy, is an excellent comparison to The White Lotus. Avenue 5 had an interesting setting, great cast, and premise: A resort traveling through space, and something inevitably goes wrong. The problem with Avenue 5 is that it hasn't been consistently funny enough, and its social commentary seems like it isn't entirely clear about what it’s saying.
It will be interesting to see how being a miniseries might help The White Lotus because it wants to tell a cohesive story that isn’t setting up a second season. The first episode introduces interesting characters that feel like real people despite having some ridiculous moments. The class clash and the privilege on display in the first episode don’t seem like an afterthought, but something focused and purposeful.
The White Lotus is worth checking out and might fill the HBO Sunday night void that Mare of Easttown left us with for a few weeks. It’s nice having something to look forward to watching as appointment viewing, and The White Lotus might end up being that show that fulfills that craving for a prestige show in a summer where they are largely absent.
The White Lotus is now showing on HBO.
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