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HBO's The White Lotus Is a Barbed Trip to Paradise

Mike White's new character drama is a rich mix of tones, well-observed social comedy... and Jennifer Coolidge.
  • Honeymooners Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy) are two of the resort's pampered guests in Mike White's new series The White Lotus. (Photo: HBO)
    Honeymooners Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy) are two of the resort's pampered guests in Mike White's new series The White Lotus. (Photo: HBO)

    Any doubt that The White Lotus, the new HBO series from creator Mike White, might lack White's signature sharp edges gets dispelled right away in the series's first scene. Shane Patton (Jake Lacy, using every bit of his varsity quarterback aesthetics to his advantage) is sitting miserably in an airport terminal, waiting to board his flight home from Hawaii and very obviously trying to brush off the "how was your honeymoon?" small talk from the couple across from him, when talk turns to a death at the resort Shane had stayed at... and we see the cardboard box of human remains being loaded on the plane, bound for the mainland. Is there a reason why Shane is looking so unsettled? And where is his wife anyway?

    The White Lotus isn't a whodunnit, even if those dark clouds from the opening scene linger in the back of viewers' minds throughout the series. That scene is just an early, tone-setting reminder that the tropical locale and luxurious resort we're about to visit is meant to be off-putting. This comes as no surprise if you're at all familiar with White, the writer and director behind such films as Chuck & Buck, Year of the Dog, and Beatriz at Dinner, as well as the quietly stunning HBO comedy series Enlightened.

    Enlightened, which only lasted two perfect seasons, starred Laura Dern as a former corporate ladder-climber who gets fired, has her life fall apart, and is subsequently revived by a philosophical awakening in rehab. Upon her return, Dern's Amy Jellicoe is inspired by her own newfound sense of centeredness, even as the calming mantras she speaks in her inner monologue don't always match the bull-in-a-china-shop nature of her outward behavior. One of the things that made Enlightened so good was that White never gave too much credence to the jargon-y world of self-improvement while at the same time allowing Amy to benefit and grow from the ways it let her visualize her best self, even if that best self was constantly being sabotaged by her actual self.

    While self-improvement isn't exactly the goal for many of the characters in The White Lotus, it takes place within the ephemeral gauze of privileged wellness, where a week-long trip to a Hawaiian resort isn't so much a vacation as it is an occasion for replenishment or even just the rewards for being … well, able to afford it. The handful of well-off white people who gather at the White Lotus hotel are all there for different reasons, but they're also there to enjoy their money and the idyllic experiences it affords them.

    There are married parents Nicole and Mark Mossbacher (Connie Britton and Steve Zahn), she a girlboss CEO of a social media platform, he currently very concerned that his recently swollen testicles are cancerous. They're traveling with their sullen, screen-obsessed teenage son (Fred Hechinger, recently of The Woman in the Window), their older teenage daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and her friend Paula (Brittany O'Grady), the two meanest and most (emotionally) scary teenage girls seen on TV screens in quite some time.

    There's also the aforementioned Shane, honeymooning with his new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who married into his family money — his mother is bankrolling this entire honeymoon, something we're frequently reminded of as Shane tries to strongarm the hotel into the upgrades he feels he's owed — and she is increasingly finding her voice (as any career ambitions she might have) shouted down by his assholish nature.

    And then there's Tanya, who's traveling solo with the ashes of her recently departed mother, and who's played by Jennifer Coolidge giving the performance of her life as, essentially, Sonja Morgan from The Real Housewives of NYC. Tanya is sad and clearly longing to connect with somebody, which leads her to latch onto the in-house massage therapist, Belinda, played by Insecure's Natasha Rothwell, in ways that are benevolent while also also acutely aware of the power imbalance between them.

    Not every staff member's interactions with the guests is quite as complementary. Looking's Murray Bartlett plays Armond, the hospitality manager at the hotel and thus the person bearing the brunt of Shane's bullying attempts to upgrade, not to mention the intrigue that hits when a knapsack full of Olivia and Paula's drugs (prescription and otherwise) turns up lost. Armond frequently finds himself betwixt and between the classes of people at the White Lotus, trying to walk the line between subservience to the resort's wealthy clientele and demanding boss to the rest of the hotel's staff. "You have to treat these people like sensitive children," he says to one employee. "They want to be treated like the only child."

    Indeed, the pampered, cloistered existence of the guests is a big part of what makes their interactions with each other and the staff so frequently funny. Nicole is the show's avatar of white feminism, admonishing her daughter not to speak ill of Hillary Clinton in one breath, then later snapping at Rachel when she finds out she wrote an insufficiently fawning profile of her. Mark's cancer scare has him trying to forge a closer relationship with his son, while turning up some surprising revelations about his own family history.

    Rachel, the one character who doesn't come from money, is naturally the one most conscious of its effects on her marriage. But it's Coolidge's Tanya who shines the brightest as the show's comedic highlight. She's an actress who has perfected the art of oblivious absurdity in films like Best in Show and Legally Blonde, and The White Lotus gives her the kind of room she's rarely afforded to make a character both screamingly ludicrous while at the same time achingly human.

    That's part of Mike White's gift, too. His ability to find both contemptible weakness and deep reserves of humanity in unlikely characters and situations comes up again and again in his work. Enlightened feels like a good touchstone for The White Lotus's tricky mix of dramatic and comedic tones, as does Beatriz at Dinner, his film in which Salma Hayek played a massage therapist who gets stuck at a dinner party thrown by one of her wealthy white clients, ultimately leading to social discomfort that, more than anything, touches on the toxicity of wealthy white people. Connie Britton played Hayek's employer in that film, making her a kind of white-lady avatar for White.

    If you're a fan of Mike White's brand of well-observed, interpersonally prickly study of characters who are both tough to love and yet impossible to easily brush aside, you'll slide right into the rhythms of The White Lotus. It's tough to predict how people unfamiliar with Mike White's work will respond. The fact that there is ostensibly a murder mystery element might spur some kind of fervent chatter over who, in fact, dunnit, but if Mare of Easttown was a kind of sugar-coated pill that allowed audiences to play couch sleuths to a crime serial while HBO secretly fed them a richly drawn character drama, The White Lotus is even less concerned with the mystery it teases at its outset. For many that will be just fine, perfectly satisfied as they are in luxuriating in these obliviously disastrous creatures on holiday. For everyone else, maybe take this as your opportunity to catch a vibe and let it lead your spirit down a path through some films and TV you've missed along the way.

    The White Lotus premieres on HBO Sunday July 11 at 9:00 PM ET, with new episodes airing weekly through August.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The White Lotus, HBO, Alexandra Daddario, Connie Britton, Jake Lacy, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Murray Bartlett, Steve Zahn