Mike White’s television writing filmography is not long, but it stands out for the specific way his work strikes a cultural nerve – strong. Ten years ago he gave us “Enlightened,” a show in which Amy Jellicoe, an honestly-intentioned but misguided spiritual seeker, played by Laura Dern, personified the kind of fickle New Age spiritualism that is derided by virtually anyone who doesn’t. are not an inhabitant of the coast.

Dern’s character on this show is timeless, and his performance still gets screaming on social media every once in a while all these years later. “Enlightened” was underrated in its day, canceled after just two seasons. It is also an acquired taste. Looking back, however, Amy’s clumsy and silly efforts to impose her willingness to self-actualize on an office that doesn’t give a damn about its work drones tells us a lot about how we went wrong in 2011.

She was convinced that her life had potential that it didn’t, and at the time we were wrong in believing that the world was better than it really was.

None of these illusions cloud our vision for 2021, which informs the entertaining and cruel streak of White’s new six-episode HBO limited series “The White Lotus.” This time, White swaps the joyous corporate world for a tropical Shangri-La where the rich swim with sea turtles and work the last nerves of resort workers whose job it is to cater to their every whim. Almost everyone in this series is a version of the obnoxious, and those who aren’t are a version of the trapped. It’s island life for everyone, visitors and residents.

Visitors can leave, which the director of the eponymous Hawaiian resort, Armond (Murray Bartlett), takes advantage of by surreptitiously torturing them. But they give as well as they get, which is the most important point. White understands the nuances of class struggle and how well-kept havens have a way of relaxing unsuspecting people by dropping their masks.

He also understands how travel and luxury can bring out the worst in people, especially powerful people with free time. “The White Lotus” derives its tension from reminding us every moment that no one is entirely innocent. Certainly not the rich boy Shane Patton (Jake Lacy) and his meager-paid journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), newlyweds who almost immediately find reason to be unhappy and to make Armond miserable.

The feud between Bartlett’s Armond and Lacy’s Shane is a bit more typical in how it makes the most of Bartlett’s pizzazz and Lacy’s ability to portray sibling snobbery. Still, it’s extraordinary to see the cast and White convincingly prolong Shane’s finicky dissatisfaction with his beautiful sequel for most of the series, to the point that he calls his cheerful and indifferent mother (a brilliant Molly Shannon) to help flog her aid.

They have this in common with successful businesswoman Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), a woman who cannot cede control of any situation, including the fit-up of her hotel suite. Nicole’s husband Mark (Steve Zahn) despises her a little less than he fears her, and neither is fully respected by their children.

But that doesn’t make them special, as their goofy and moody teenage son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) exists at the mercy of their daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her best friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), a pair. of students – the cynics of the age newly brainwashed into Nietzsche’s teachers and academic analysis of gender relations. They inflict their newfound sense of intellectual superiority on the adults around them and among themselves, never letting anyone get the better of them.

Discomfort is the staple of “The White Lotus”, in case you didn’t know; braiding wealth, power and abundance creates an intoxicating narcotic, and the plot is drunk. It’s almost a relief to know someone is going to die, one of the first reveals in a premiere that takes us to the end of the story before bringing us back to the beginning as the fresh take of the day.

Examining the transactional patterns between guests and staff, and the guests of wealthier guests, allows White to more effectively explore class inequalities than racial dynamics or issues of cultural advantage. It works best in the bought friendship between spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and lonely and depressed Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), a clingy woman mourning the loss of her mother and grabbing Belinda like she’s a lifeline. .

Belinda is the exception among the staff and other Islanders who work at the hotel and live in Hawaii in that we have a sense of her desires for a life beyond serving the people who see her value in proportion to what they need at any given time. Beyond her and Desmond, we don’t learn much about the White Lotus staff, which could have added a bit more humanity to an overall chemistry that may seem crippled by her studied view of behavior. human.

Mossbacher’s mealtime conversations are jaded right-wing festivities over culture cancellation and other conservative talking points presented as a Darwinian defense of their privilege. The nastiness of these speeches is the point, but they are also exhausting.

Regardless of that, White has a knack for giving each of his characters true humanity, even the most emotionally cannibalistic. Nicole is absolutely horrible, but there are times when she takes the armor off to show us where the damage is, why she’s wearing it, and how it’s necrosis her marriage, and Britton is one of the few performers who can nail such a vulnerability with dead -precision of the eyes.

Coolidge makes Tanya a marvelous tide of sadness with a dangerous surf, but she and Belinda are a pair of conveniences so wonderfully “bad for each other” it’s hard to look away. That’s a real accomplishment in an era of HBO defined by shows about rich and horrible people.

But alongside “The Undoing” and “Big Little Lies” and the crazy, lyrical substance of “Succession”, “The White Lotus” is a destination event, a safe and worry-controlled day trip. . Some will love the aerial grin White provides here, which intensifies as this series deepens its run. Even if the fuss gets too much to handle, you can still be relieved to know that like all good vacations, it ends exactly as it should and when it should.

“The White Lotus” premieres Sunday, July 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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