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Mike White's The White Lotus is a sharply etched satire of classism and white privilege

  • White's pandemic-filmed HBO limited series is also "a deft exploration of the power dynamics that define every relationship between and among the guests and staff in this upscale paradise," says Jen Chaney. "Whenever you might think you know where this show is headed, it careens somewhere unexpected. Tonally, it’s a piña colada spiked with arsenic, or maybe a Bloody Mary with a generous dash of actual blood. Subtextually, and often textually, it’s more or less everything Socko says in the song 'How the World Works' from Bo Burnham’s Inside. ('Why do you rich f*cking white people insist on seeing every sociopolitical conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization? This isn’t about you!' etc.)" Chaney adds: "Vacations are supposed to be about rest and rejuvenation, but The White Lotus is not a relaxing watch. While the beauty of its setting is captured in lovely shots of turtles swimming to the surface of the sea and the twinkle of string lights over cozy dinner tables, this series is, unlike the staff of the White Lotus, not here to make you comfortable. It’s an indictment of colonialism and cultural appropriation, of privilege and systemic power structures, of entitlement and the many forms it takes. It’s also a comedy about how no one really ever gets what they want in life, even the ones who clearly have everything, and then they die, especially that one character who is alluded to in that first scene. The opening scene implies that death should be a big deal. But by the end of The White Lotus, it doesn’t feel like much of one. After all, everyone is expendable."

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    • The White Lotus is the latest HBO drama about rich white people behaving badly: "It’s hard to imagine The White Lotus on a network other than HBO, which has recently cornered the market on terrible (mostly) White rich people through such shows as Succession, Big Little Lies, Veep, The Undoing and The Righteous Gemstones," says Inkoo Kang. "(Depending on your tastes, Entourage and Sex and the City might belong on that list, too.) Is there anything left to observe about the trail of casual destruction the moneyed and connected can leave in their unhappy wake? For White, who wrote and directed all six episodes, the answer seems to be no. But his characters and the performances from the cast — which, largely pulled from other shows on the network, comprises a kind of HBO troupe — make for a twisty, queasy, sweatily claustrophobic drama."
    • The White Lotus is frequently uncomfortable, sometimes poetic, occasionally hilarious, and deeply idiosyncratic throughout: "Superficially, it seems like an art-house take on The Love Boat," says Alan Sepinwall, "following three sets of wealthy guests — lonely Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge); entitled Shane (Jake Lacy) and his newlywed wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario); and high-powered executive Nicole (Connie Britton), toting anxious husband Mark (Steve Zahn), frustrated son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), toxic daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and Olivia’s friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) — as they work through their personal problems with the help of staffers like Armond and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). But it’s really a dark satire of class in America, and the ways that the ultrarich use up people like Armond and Belinda and spit them out, often because it’s an easy way to feel secure in one’s privilege."
    • Yes, this is a hell is other people story: "What makes it not just fresh, but thrilling is the way that Sartrean conceit gets filtered through the distinctive tragicomic sensibility of White, who wrote and directed every episode," says Judy Berman. "Like his last HBO series, the cult classic Enlightened, The White Lotus (note the creator’s surname, as well as the extremely loaded invocation of the lotus, whose literary lineage will come up eventually) is uniquely attuned to characters’ internal conflicts as well as their varying level of self-awareness, and how that inner turmoil shapes their interactions. Shane has no idea what a nightmare he can be. Tanya, by contrast, is a disaster, but she knows that and tries to be honest about it. Staff at the resort don’t have the same—or, really, any—freedom to blurt out their own private thoughts. It’s when the hopes, appetites and resentments they’ve repressed come to the surface that life at the White Lotus spins out of control. There are political elements at play here. Class differences aside, while the guests are almost all white and straight, the staffers we meet are Indigenous or Black or queer. And, as in Enlightened, the lofty principles characters espouse tend to dovetail conveniently with their own self-interest. Olivia’s Hillary-bashing is clearly meant to rile up her high-achieving mom. Would she or any of the guests really choose to give up their privilege, though, if given the chance?"
    • Like White's Enlightened, The White Lotus defies a simple description: "Episodes are an hour long, but each features jokes that Deborah Vance would envy," says Ben Travers. "Social satire of the rich and entitled is unceasing, but there’s still room for personal growth among select characters. Perhaps most surprising is the opening framing device: Before Armond & Co. greet their guests and introduce our story’s swank setting, the premiere flashes forward one week, when Shane (Jake Lacy) is sitting alone at an airport, preparing to fly home, and an inquisitive couple asks him about the murder that took place at his hotel. Is The White Lotus a murder-mystery? Yes. Is it also a comedy? Absolutely. Does it confront the harsh truths of America’s wealth gap by studying a contained batch of subjects on either end of the ever-widening spectrum? It would be weird if I said, 'No,' so yup, that’s there, too. White’s latest work is also an ensemble showcase with a handful of unforgettable performances — (Murray) Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge top among them — as well as a paradox unto itself, in that it’s extremely addictive and consistently uncomfortable. Conceived and shot during the pandemic, The White Lotus is many things, but it’s nothing short of a marvel."
    • The White Lotus is a fascinating trick of light that bends its interlocking stories with the kind of impressive dexterity we’ve come to expect from White: "By the time you get used to this show’s rhythms, it’s already shifted into something else entirely," says Caroline Framke, adding: "The entire cast pulls its weight, but The White Lotus leaps into a whole other gear when centering its two smartest performances. No one on the island is as exquisitely tortured as Murray Bartlett’s spiraling hotel manager Armand and Jennifer Coolidge’s grieving guest Tanya. Their experiences couldn’t be more different; they rarely even share a scene, perhaps because the fizzing neuroses of each might swallow the other whole. And yet throughout the series, both Armand and Tanya teeter on the edge of total nervous breakdowns before swan-diving straight into them to drastic effect. Bartlett and Coolidge are exceptional as they embrace every twisted knot of conflict inherent in their roles. As Armand’s and Tanya’s behavior reaches manic heights, the performances grounding them become ever more mesmerizing."
    • The White Lotus is Survivor-like, delightfully mean-spirited and unexpectedly big-hearted in ways that will probably polarize some audiences: "I found it vibrantly messy and deceptively emotional, a show that I wasn’t convinced was working after one episode and that I didn’t want to end after six," says Daniel Fienberg. "For all of the soapy misadventures in the foreground — driven by the spectacularly percussive and primal score from Cristobal Tapia de Veer — lingering in the background is the Enlightened-esque quandary of what it takes to be happy if simply being rich is no longer enough. What are the extremes that you’ll go to in order to restore your sense of control if you aren’t cynical enough to realize that the natural state of humanity is that we’re all animals? If The White Lotus is an anthropological study of what happens to civilized people if you plunk them down in the wilderness and, despite a lavish breakfast buffet and facial treatments, let them go feral, maybe the Mike White show this most closely resembles is actually Survivor? HBO is calling the hour-long White Lotus both a limited series and a social satire, though it’s no more or less overtly 'funny' than Succession, a somewhat thematically compatible 'drama' (for Emmy purposes) that’s really a dark comedy about the insulation and isolation that can make embarrassing wealth seem like a form of mental illness."
    • This is a sharp, soulful series that knows its characters in full and gets richer as it goes on: "It’s vicious and a little sudsy and then, out of nowhere, sneakily uplifting," says James Poniewozik. "Along with its class-conscious bite, it has a sincere sense of beauty and awe. We all work and play and live and die under the same sun, The White Lotus says. Some of us just manage to get in more sunbathing than others."
    • Despite a strong start and some excellent performances, The White Lotus does wane towards the end of the series’ six stylish episodes: "The attempted class commentary is only slightly developed, and the obvious disillusionment experienced by the staff is set aside for a focus on the guests,"  says Kristen Reid. "Perhaps White is emphasizing the series’ point in this way—that society is quick to push the problems of the working class away in favor of the rich and powerful. But instead of the series’ short run delivering a well-honed critique alongside its murder mystery, the end result feels unsatisfyingly unfinished."
    • The White Lotus will likely make you want to almost never take a vacation again: "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," says Kimberly Ricci. "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."
    • As The White Lotus plods forward, it’s a bit difficult to care WHICH of the main players will get the Agatha Christie treatment: "Not because most of them are selfish, unlikable narcissists, but because they’re one-note characters with skin-deep personalities," says Richard Roeper. "This is particularly surprising and disappointing given White is a unique talent who created and co-starred in the underrated HBO series Enlightened and wrote the screenplays for Chuck and Buck, School of Rock and The One and Only Ivan. This time around, however, White takes his aim at easy targets and frames their stories like anthropological studies, keeping us at a distance and producing only sporadic bursts of smart and uncomfortable humor. Filmed at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea in a production bubble during the pandemic, “The White Lotus” plays like a twisted, landlocked extended episode of The Love Boat, as we follow the misadventures of a handful of members of the staff as well as a small group of vacationers whose stories occasionally intertwine."
    • Part of The White Lotus' charm, aside from the ensemble cast, is the way it deals with big questions that we—Americans—grapple with: "Privilege and politics are there in the show’s underpinnings, but they’re also front and center courtesy of the Mossbacher family dinner table," says Bob Scheffler. "It’s not as heavy as it might sound—it’s just woke kids arguing with their world-weary parents—but the dialogue proves indelible. Does anyone who fights to get a seat at the table ever voluntarily give it up? What does a modern hero look like? What do you stand for? One question, from Quinn, the 16-year-old son, especially stuck with me. He gets suddenly emotional one night about bad things that happen in the world and wants to know: 'Where does all the pain go?' Where does all the pain go? Maybe it doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe we live with it, individually and collectively, whether we know it or not."
    • The White Lotus is reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite: "Perhaps the idea of watching a group of rich people do rich-people things to the chagrin of long-suffering lesser-thans sounds grueling," says Roxana Hadadi. "But The White Lotus hits the same notes as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite by poking and prodding at its characters’ class divide and offering up shreds of empathy and compassion to individuals who are caught in systems, patterns, or behaviors they can’t escape. Are the hotel guests cruel? In the way that Don Draper told Michael Ginsberg that he doesn’t think about him at all, yes. Lacy’s Shane, born into an elite family and constantly nagging new wife Rachel about why she’s not having fun, makes an enemy out of Armond over a petty grievance. Tanya, who covers her traumas and neuroses with layers of nude lip gloss and designer caftans, gloms onto Belinda as her spiritual healer without ever asking her questions about herself. And the Judith Butler- and Franz Fanon-reading, drug-doing, and shit-stirring Olivia and Paula get into a spat over a flirtation with a hotel worker. In each of these relationships, White digs deeper and deeper into what is making all of these people unhappy, with each episode pivoting into a new perspective and deftly balancing an array of tones."
    • Each White Lotus cast member brings their A-game: "It’s a genuinely flawless ensemble with surprises (Alexandra Daddario showing hitherto unseen depths), opportunities (Natasha Rothwell, so brash and hysterically funny in Insecure is equally effective dialled down, especially in a gut-punch of a final scene), revelations (Jennifer Coolidge who is so often given a one-note buffoon to play excels with a more layered character) and subversions (Connie Britton’s brand of supportive TV mom is excellently turned into something far darker)," says Benjamin Lee. "There’s a finely tuned social choreography among the ensemble, so many scenes slowly, brilliantly playing out for maximum discomfort (a poolside chat between Britton and Daddario is the most remarkably unpleasant thing I’ve seen all year), each player on their absolute A-game. The White Lotus isn’t insisting itself as a state of the nation satire but White’s deft and unforgiving writing manages what so many others have tried and failed to do in the last five years. He’s created a deeply funny and bracingly topical piece of art that prods and provokes without preaching. His show says more about class, sex and race because it’s not directly about those issues, remembering, vitally, that to send a message, one has to package it well."
    • What’s happening here is sometimes like a variation on the HBO series Succession: "We’re watching selfish people behave in ways that make you cringe but you can’t take your eyes off them. Mike White aims his satire at several targets," says John Doyle. "The male narcissism of Mark is astonishing. He believes, at the beginning, that he has testicular cancer and keeps examining his testicles. A similar but more corrosive narcissism pervades the Shane character and his wife Rachel is portrayed as a fool who has mistaken his cruelty for decisiveness. Why watch? First, there is a genuine mystery – we know from the first episode that somebody has died, probably murdered, but don’t know who or why. In the main, though, the six-episode series is a work of phenomenal acuity about money, class, generation gaps, sex and love. Without ever being over emphatic it is hilariously sardonic. One of the year’s best new shows."
    • The White Lotus may be cynical, but it is not depressingly so: "The brilliance in the series is its balance: never too cringeworthy, too shocking, too slapstick," says Kelly Lawler." It's the Goldilocks level of just right, and enormously entertaining for all six episodes. But it might make you think twice about visiting Hawaii."
    • The White Lotus is no populist jihad: "The plutocrats may be unmindful but not cruel," says Glenn Garvin. "Some of the plebes really do turn out to be thieves and louts, and much of the humor is subtle enough that it's hard to tell in which direction it's intended to cut. When the college kids are asked if they're really reading the volumes of Freud and Nietzsche they lug to the pool each day, one of them replies: 'No, we get them from set dressers.' There's a joke there, but I'm not sure on whom. In the morally indifferent world of The White Lotus, it doesn't seem to matter."
    • Jennifer Coolidge admits she tried to get out of doing The White Lotus: Her former co-star Mike White, she says, "calls me up, and I thought the world was just doomed so I was with this friend eating ourselves to death. I felt like we were on this sinking ship, and we better (enjoy what we can) before this ship goes under. I asked him how much time I had to get ready. Mike was like, 'It’s happening now, Jennifer. . . We’re all flying to Hawaii.' It was devastating news. To be on camera after this. . . are you kidding me? I just didn't want to do it...At one point I decided I couldn't do the job and didn't have enough time to prepare. It was such a scary choice to go do it. So I was in my bed, trying to think of what excuse would sound believable to Mike. Could I say I just wasn’t feeling well. . .or I have something coming up family-wise? But a lot of the excuses didn’t work because we weren’t going anywhere. I was in my bed. The light was off. And then, I just hear this little ding. It was a text on my phone. I grab my phone to look at it. And it just says, 'Are you afraid?' from Mike. It was like he just could feel through the airwaves. All these other actors showed up too, and it ended up being this incredible experience. And Mike White is a very fun person, which was good to be around. He’s very upbeat."
    • HBO executive Francesca Orsi called Mike White and presented him with a proposal: Could he make a show in one location? For less than $3 million dollars per episode? Could he do it safely? “It sounded hellish,” White said. He decided he could, and immediately thought of the budget vacations his family would go on to Hawaii while growing up. “It was kind of the first place where I realized there is another place and another culture and another life outside of the life I lived in Pasadena,” he said. White, who has owned a writers' retreat on the island of Kauai for the past decade, had immersed himself in Hawaii’s history, particularly the wounds U.S. imperialism has inflicted. It changed his mind about the luau night that he enjoyed as a kid. “There’s something about vacationing in other people’s realities,” he said. So when Orsi, HBO's vice president for drama, made the call, he knew almost immediately that he wanted to set a show there. “I just was like, I should just do a show about people on vacation who have money, and how money is impacting all of their relationships,” he said.
    • Mike White and his cast were grateful for the experience of filming in quarantine: “HBO came to me and was hoping I could come up with some idea that was COVID-friendly and in one location, and at the time I was like, ‘How do I get out of L.A. and go somewhere that’s not like punishing?'” says White “I was like, ‘Maybe we can do a show in a posh hotel?’ That was kind of the initial idea, then I thought there’s something I’ve always wanted to write about the leisure world and people trying to escape their lives and then ending up being more stuck in a crucible.” Steve Zahn adds: “We got so tight because we didn’t go away, you didn’t go to your house, you’re not staying in different places. The crew stayed there, the extras; we knew the extras, first time in my life we actually got to know people.”

    TOPICS: The White Lotus, HBO, Francesca Orsi, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Coronavirus




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