The White Lotus Season 1 (HBO)
Written & Directed by Mike White
In British popular media, there is a regular focus on class as a means of societal division. You see this in programs like Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey. In America, we often substitute race or gender for the same purpose. The White Lotus is an interesting anomaly as it takes that framework and combines it with a somewhat outdated American television series format, the procedural vacation show (Love Boat, Fantasy Island). The result is a series that doesn’t feel like anything else on television at the moment, and that’s quite refreshing. It’s no surprise this comes from Mike White, the showrunner behind another magnificent HBO series, Enlightened. Once again, he presents a story that doesn’t follow the structures and narrative we might expect from such a show.
The White Lotus is a luxury resort in Hawaii, and the series follows one incredibly eventful week at the hotel. Armond (Murray Bartlett) is the hotel manager and encourages his staff to stay focused on keeping the visitors happy. Unfortunately, he’s also a recovering addict who ends up with a backpack full of drugs in the lost & found. Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) runs the resort spa and encourages Armond to stay sober even when it seems impossible. Three people are visiting for the week, starting with the Mossbachers. Nicole (Connie Britton) & Mark (Steve Zahn) have brought their two teenage children, Olivia & Quinn, and Olivia’s college friend Paula to have a big family event.
Newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jack Lacy) are ready to spend their honeymoon in luxury until the groom realizes they have been put in the wrong suite. This begins Shane’s obsession with humiliating Armond while Rachel begins questioning what this marriage means for her as a person. And then there’s Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a troubled woman who has brought her mother’s ashes to spread in the ocean. Tanya hasn’t really managed to process her mother’s death and has wild mood swings, smiling one moment and then bursting into tears. The show’s humor often comes out of the weight put on the staff to keep these incredibly privileged people happy at all times.
Unlike its American precursor, this vacation series doesn’t wrap things up in a single episode or focus on the personal fulfillment of the guests. Everything is made crystal clear from the cold open of episode 1. Shane sits at his gate in the airport as a body is loaded onto his plane. A German couple asks him how his trip went, and he promptly tells them to leave him the fuck alone. Mike White beautifully teases the audience about the plot and clarifies this isn’t going to be Fantasy Island. This continues throughout the visual tone of the series. The lighting is typically warm and colored in hues of oranges & yellows. However, when some more intimate and intense moments occur, the lighting and cinematography switch. Lovers in hushed conversations are silhouettes in navy blues and moonlight reflecting off the ocean.
White also seems disinterested in making characters good/evil binaries. Rachel appears on the surface to have her arc set up as female empowerment. She was a journalist, and now that she’s married, her husband strongly encourages her to stay at home like his mom and be a wine-guzzling socialite. Rachel wants none of it and spends much of the series struggling internally about what to do. There’s a turning point when she chooses to unload her personal issues on a hotel employee who has just had their dreams squashed, and it won’t play out how you might expect from a more conventional show. The White Lotus doesn’t give its characters closure that has you walking away and feeling satisfied, able to file away and forget about these people.
Each episode is accompanied by an original score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, the composer of Utopia, among many other shows. If you haven’t heard de Veer’s work before, it’s best described as audible tension. That may come across as something unpleasant to experience, but I would say I’m always in awe of his work. I can’t think of many other composers who can evoke the sense of momentum and anxiety-like de Veer can. In the context of The White Lotus, when the music begins, it’s like a machine starts whirring, and as an audience member, you can feel yourself hitting the peaks and valleys of an emotional roller coaster with these characters. Then, as situations become increasingly infuriating and impossible for the hotel staff, the music reflects with bits of dissonance or repetition of strange, unsettling sounds.
Mike White accomplishes something extraordinary with these six episodes. He never allows the audience to easily hate a single person; instead, he makes them relatable, and that feels even worse. Once you begin to see yourself as one of these guests, it becomes tough to stomach. None of these people are part of the wealthy monolith of the planet. They are simply privileged upper-middle-class Americans, apolitical with shades of liberalism & white supremacy intermingling. Every single problem they are experiencing (the wrong suite, unable to jet ski, etc.) feels unimportant as staff members are grappling with addiction and trying to climb a seemingly impossible economic ladder. The first episode features a staff member hiding her pregnancy on the job because she’s worried about getting fired. One indigenous waiter laments how his older brother is angry with him for working at a resort on land stolen from their people. These are real problems without easy solutions. I don’t think there’s another show right now that manages to be equal parts entertaining and willing to address a lot of the socio-political problems of the 2020s like this. With a season two announced, set in Italy and signaling the series will be a seasonal anthology, I cannot wait to see what Mike White manages to say next.