Enlightened creator Mike White has returned to HBO with The White Lotus, a biting social satire that follows a group of wealthy white folks vacationing at the eponymous Hawaiian resort. The ensemble dramedy’s greatest feature is its star-studded cast, and through its six episodes, it tracks their characters’ intertwined relationships across a tense weeklong period. But as serene vacations take dark turns, the series hits a bit of turbulence, leading to a rocky conclusion that doesn’t quite live up to the show’s strong start.
The White Lotus begins with the promise of death. “We heard someone was killed there,” a chatty older woman says in response to Shane Patton (Jake Lacy, perfectly encapsulating the toxic aura of inherited wealth down to the Cornell baseball cap) revealing that he’s just left the resort. “No offense, but leave me the fuck alone,” he spits before watching a cardboard box, haphazardly labeled “Human Remains,” get loaded onto their plane. The narrative scene is set—as is the series’ dark sense of humor—before we’re transported a week back in time to witness the group’s idyllic arrival to the White Lotus.
Despite a potential murder mystery and a scathing portrait of society, The White Lotus’s greatest strength is simply the depth of its cast and characters. Obscenely rich, lacking any semblance of self-awareness, and firmly believing that they are all Good Guys, the hotel guests are all immediately recognizable members of the jaded upper class. Shane and his new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) are on a less-than-perfect honeymoon; Tanya (the impeccable Jennifer Coolidge) has arrived in Hawaii to scatter the ashes of her recently deceased mother; and the Mossbacher family (Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Sydney Sweeney, and Fred Hechinger) are on a family vacation along with Paula (Brittany O’Grady), a friend of their daughter’s. (Of the hotel guests, Paula is the only non-white character, a well-developed point of contention throughout the series.) Each actor in this ensemble gives a strong performance, expertly embodying the self-serving behaviors of the wealthy.
On the other side of the reception desk, Murray Bartlett and Natasha Rothwell also star as the pseudo-cheery hotel manager, Armond, and kind-hearted spa manager, Belinda, respectively. Tasked with fulfilling every request made on a whim by the guests, the lives of the hotel staff are eternally on the periphery. Expendable and replaceable, the working-class backbone of the resort are treated with disdain at every turn. Paula and Rachel exist in a liminal space of privilege—neither are quite comfortable with the lifestyle they’re experiencing at the White Lotus, but both reap the benefits of the wealth they’re newly adjacent to. However, the social commentary is somewhat superficial, and White makes the class differences—and his angst towards this brand of uber-rich guests—crystal clear throughout the miniseries. Here the working class exists to serve, and anyone who dares push back against the status quo will witness the consequences.
Ultimately, it is Tanya who is a particular stand-out, managing to hook the attention of everyone she encounters and steal every scene she’s in. Coolidge, known primarily for her comedic character acting, gives a whirlwind dramatic performance in the miniseries. Depressed and self-medicating with copious amounts of booze, Tanya makes a forceful arrival to the White Lotus. She immediately begs for a massage despite Belinda’s insistence that they’re fully booked, kicking off a fascinating relationship between the two. Belinda and Tanya’s bond develops through their week together and they share moments of seemingly a deep connection, although Tanya’s crippling lack of awareness of how she impacts those around her creates one-sided tension. Still, Coolidge’s ability to evoke sympathy while still portraying such a grotesquely self-involved character is a true testament to her talent.
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. 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 premieres Sunday, July 11 on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
Kristen Reid is a culture writer and TV intern for Paste Magazine. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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