tv review

The White Lotus Is No Vacation

Jennifer Coolidge, checking in for her stay. Photo: Mario Perez/HBO

The opening titles of The White Lotus magnify the images in sections of textured wallpaper that, at first, looks like the décor you’d expect to see in a bougie tropical setting. Birds and monkeys frolic in branches. Leopard cubs nap blissfully in palm fronds. But slowly, the visuals become more disturbing: There’s a close-up of a small fish, with one eye bulging as he’s strangled by seaweed, and there are three men paddling an outrigger canoe directly into a daunting wave.

The titles announce that this place you’re about to enter — specifically, the luxury Hawaiian resort at the center of Mike White’s new HBO series — is full of life. But also? This place is death.

Death looms subtly over all six episodes of the darkly comic, completely absorbing The White Lotus thanks to the very first scene, which finds Shane Patton (Jake Lacy, steering away from his usual nice-guy roles to play an unrepentant asshole) confirming to an overly chatty couple at the airport that someone died recently at the White Lotus, the resort where he has just spent part of his honeymoon.

There are elements that ring a tiny bit familiar in that opening, which segues into a flashback to the previous week, when Shane, his wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), and several other well-heeled guests first arrive at their posh beach digs. The in medias res beginning followed by a backward time jump has basically become modern television’s standard storytelling device. And in keeping with the HBO sensibility, this is yet another limited series about rich, white people that immediately implies a murder may have occurred.

But aside from those elements, the word “familiar” does not really apply to The White Lotus, which debuts Sunday night. Created, written, and directed by White, the man responsible for another HBO great, the prematurely canceled Enlightened, this series is a sharply etched satire of classism and white privilege, as well as a deft exploration of the power dynamics that define every relationship between and among the guests and staff in this upscale paradise. 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 fucking white people insist on seeing every sociopolitical conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization? This isn’t about you!” etc.)

When the VIP guests first arrive to the secluded resort via boat, Armond, the hotel manager played by Murray Bartlett (formerly Dom on HBO’s Looking), advises Lani (Jolene Purdy), a trainee experiencing her first day on the job, that the role of the staff is to remain invisible while catering to the guests’ every whim. “You don’t want to be too specific as a presence, as an identity,” he tells this Hawaiian woman who is surely used to having her identity overlooked by tourists with overstuffed bank accounts. That ironic piece of advice doubles as a sly bit of guidance about how to critically watch The White Lotus, a series in which every person of means or power, whether a guest or a staff member, demonstrates a lack of compassion for those who fall below them in the established social hierarchy. To that point: For much of the rest of episode one, whenever Armond is asked about Lani, he responds with, “Who?”, only remembering her when she’s referred to as “the trainee.” This man who told Lani to stifle her identity never views her as having one in the first place.

Armond’s behavior, like that of almost every character in The White Lotus, could and may launch a thousand think pieces, which is a testament to the serrated edges in White’s writing and the fantastic actors that make up the cast. When Shane, a man who apparently had access to a silver spoon while in utero, realizes that he and Rachel may have been booked in the wrong suite, his obsession with the error becomes his white whale in ways that are both comical and a bit disturbing. Lacy leans into that dichotomy by deploying his signature, dimpled-smile charm, then dropping that grin cold when Shane doesn’t get precisely the treatment he thinks he deserves. Shane’s entitlement becomes increasingly appalling to Rachel, who immediately begins to wonder if marrying this guy was a wrong move. When Shane tries to reassure her that their happiness will never fade — “There will be days and days just like this,” he coos in her ear — the look of abject terror on Daddario’s face evokes a laugh and a measure of sympathy for this woman who doesn’t come from money and clearly has no idea how it molds mind-sets.

The Mossbacher family strides into The White Lotus with a whole other set of literal and emotional baggage. Mark (Steve Zahn) is fixated on the possibility that he is about to be diagnosed with cancer, while his wife Nicole (Connie Britton), the successful head of a Google-esque corporation, doesn’t know how to deal with anything unless she’s arranging it, whether that’s the furniture in the hotel suite or the meal schedule for the day. “Mom, it’s vacation,” the Mossbachers’ teenage son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) shouts at one point. “It’s a breakfast buffet in Hawaii. It shouldn’t be a stressful situation!”

Nicole is a faux Zen mom, the kind of woman who maintains composure both for appearances and because she knows the kind of peace that only a woman who gets whatever she wants can know. Britton gives the kind of performance here that looks effortless, but only because she seems to understand deep in her bones how a woman like Nicole wields her power: gently, so that no one feels the entry wound until the knife’s already begun to twist.

The biggest challenge to Nicole’s sense of calm is her daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), a college sophomore who has brought her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady, of the overlooked Apple TV+ series Little Voice) along on the family trip as a partner in never-ending judgment. In the hotel, poolside, or on the beach, the two young women sit next to each other casting unforgiving gazes at others over the tops of their absurdly juxtaposed beach reads. (In one scene, Paula reads Freud while Olivia reads Nietzsche.) During a casual conversation with Rachel, they interrogate her as if they’re memorizing details that they can later file in a police report.

Olivia gets particular satisfaction out of calling out her parents on their own privilege and obliviousness. In one exchange, she flags her dad for making a homophobic comment, prompting Nicole to ask if she plans to “cancel him? Dox him? Sic the K-pop stans on him?” As the one non-white person shoehorned into this family circle, Paula, whose ethnicity is never made clear, throws louder and louder hints that she feels like an outsider here. The Mossbachers generally are too oblivious to notice.

And then there’s [trumpet fanfare] Tanya McQuoid, pronounced Mc-Kwad, an eccentric woman traveling solo and determined to scatter her late mother’s ashes in an act of farewell and catharsis. Tanya is played by the great Jennifer Coolidge, who could easily make an entire career-highlight reel out of scenes from The White Lotus if she hadn’t already been so good in so many projects before this one. Upon arrival, Tanya books a massage with spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell, convincingly and movingly playing a woman who may be the polar opposite of Rothwell’s Insecure character Kelli) and develops a friendship with her that could lead to a business partnership. Maybe.

Uttering sentences that come out as a long, slow whisper, mainly because she’s not sure how she’s going to finish them, Tanya very easily could have been a caricature of the glamorous-but-lonely rich lady. But Coolidge finds the humanity and heartbreak within Tanya and gives it permission to share space with all of her hilariously out-to-lunch qualities. And she really is hilarious; during their first spa treatment, Belinda asks Tanya, who has complained of fatigue, to sit down on a pillow. “Why do you think you’re so tired?” Belinda asks sincerely. Just as sincerely, Tanya responds: “I think it’s because I’m so close to the floor.” Reader: I snorted. I snorted really loudly.

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.

The White Lotus Is No Vacation