HBO Max’s six-episode miniseries The White Lotus begins with the end of a decadent Hawaiian vacation. As Shane (Jake Lacy) waits to board a flight, looking shaken and taciturn, he tolerates small talk from other vacationers — just enough that they learn there was a death at the White Lotus hotel and resort, and that the body will be on their plane. When the story cuts back to the beginning of Shane’s vacation, with a gorgeous shot of VIPs arriving on a boat, viewers will mostly be looking for clues about what’s going to go wrong. The scene’s yellow tint seems less like a sunlit glow, and more like the sun glaring down oppressively. The approach of the boat feels like an invasion. The staff is waving on the shore, waiting to assure that everything will go right during the guests’ stay, but the setup ensures that the trip itself feels wrong.
Like Mike White’s previous cult-classic HBO series Enlightened, his new series revels in making viewers uncomfortable. The White Lotus is six episodes of ultra-rich, self-involved white people pushing resort staff around while whining about their low-stakes problems. At times, the series sticks with the VIP guests too long, to the detriment of staff and side characters who could be more richly explored. Even so, the show is must-see TV, an incisive look into the psyches of the rich and the damage they leave in their wake.
With The White Lotus, White has assembled a stellar cast of HBO alums and prestige actors. The VIPs include the Mossbacher family, made up of tech CEO Nicole (Connie Britton), “nice guy” husband Mark (Steve Zahn), college-aged daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and teenage son Quinn (Fred Hechinger). Olivia brings along her college friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who serves as her sidekick in recreational drug use and parental antagonization, leaving Quinn to be the loner wandering the hotel with his Switch in hand.
There’s also Shane, the real-estate bro on his honeymoon with journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario). And solo traveler Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is looking for a place to spread her mother’s ashes. These VIPs arrive at the White Lotus to be waited on hand and foot by resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), and the rest of the resort staff, composed of both native Hawaiians and non-natives.
The show spends a lot of time getting into the guests’ mindsets and exploring how they think about each other. It dives into not just the relationships between the families, but also how the groups interact and make assumptions about each other. It’s an interesting depiction of how personal egos lead in conversations with strangers, but eventually, watching the guests talk to each other becomes tedious. The interactions between the VIP guests and the hotel staff are the best part of the series, as White forces the audience to consider what the White Lotus’s employees have to sacrifice to provide comfort for the obnoxious VIPs.
That sense of sacrifice is most potent in Armand’s storyline. The series starts with the hotel manager in control, showing the ropes of service with a smile to a trainee (Jolene Purdy). Armand compares the work of staff to “tropical kabuki,” hiding behind a constant plastered smile. He’s effective in his job, but when he puts on the mask and zooms in on his guests’ needs, he lacks perspective on the world around him. An incident in the first episode where Armand misses something big shakes him to his core, and it’s the beginning of a mental decline exacerbated by Shane, who escalates an overbooked room into an all-out war. Bartlett (Looking) gives an excellent performance as a tortured man struggling to hold it all together.
In a smaller but no less skillful performance, as spa manager Belinda, Natasha Rothwell (Insecure) has to navigate Tanya’s attentions. After an intense holistic treatment, Tanya becomes dependent on Belinda, returning to her for massages and inviting her to share meals. It’s a cutting depiction of a white woman leaning on a Black woman for emotional support, one that could be grating if Rothwell and Coolidge (American Pie, Legally Blonde) weren’t masterful about handling the nuance. Coolidge’s revelatory performance has been heavily praised, and Rothwell deserves just as much recognition as an actor best-known for comedy, but offering a nuanced dramatic performance.
The show could stand to spend more time with Paula (Brittany O’Grady, of Little Voice and Star), a character caught in an intriguing middle ground between the staff and guests. She isn’t a hotel employee, but she’s there to serve Olivia’s needs. She spends much of the vacation behind a mask, matching Olivia’s intonations and facial expressions. She’s also the guest who’s most sympathetic to the staff, at times acting like a shaky bridge between two worlds. Without more information about Paula’s background, the show misses out on fertile ground for observational satire.
There’s been a successful micro-trend lately in putting the mega-rich under a satirical spotlight, in films and shows like Parasite and Succession. The White Lotus tells an incisive tale about how much the rich cavalierly demand of the less fortunate, but it focuses more on the VIPs than the staff, to its own detriment. It’s a show that brings up more questions than solutions, and offers more cringes than laughs. It might even make people rethink any post-vaccination urges for a tropical trip.
The first episode of The White Lotus is now on HBO Max. New episodes arrive on Sundays.