What do people expect from their vacation? Rest? Sure. Amusing? Absolutely. But also wonders.
They want a week of the year to somehow rectify the other 51; to make them fall in love, or fall in love again; strengthen tattered family ties; to ensure closure; create deathbed memories; to summon magic, by chance but on demand.
Our expectations are unrealistic in the humblest of circumstances. Add in an expensive destination and a group of privileged guests skilled at undermining their own happiness, and you have a formula for disaster, or at least a strongly worded complaint to the manager.
It’s the setup of the captivating sun-and-acid “The White Lotus”, which begins Sunday on HBO, in which a week-long getaway to an elite Hawaii resort is transformed, for three different parties. and the personnel who serve them, in a war on several fronts in the Pacific.
The six-part soap opera, written and directed by Mike White (HBO’s “Enlightened”), begins as “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” did in a gentler era on television, with a pre- staff guard greeting a series of VIPs, however, the staff are neither effortlessly cheerful nor supernatural power. They are workers, physical and emotional, whose job is to anticipate needs, to be always present and yet never noticeable.
As resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) explains to an intern, “You don’t want to be too specific, as a presence, as an identity. You want to be more generic.
Through the courteous and meticulous Armond, we see the invisible gymnastics that goes into this work. Each welcome of a guest involves a multitude of micro-evaluations: who needs insurance, who needs a drink. It’s high pressure work (Armond is actually a recovering drug addict), performed behind a placid namaste mask.
It won’t be a perfect week. We learn in a media opening that someone is going to die, a mystery that gives “The White Lotus” a sweet intrigue. But the real engine of the series is money. Even the sunlight looks like money here; White bathes the scenes in such a golden glow that one would think the hotel has exclusive access to premium private sunshine.
And money defines relationships of character, not just between guests and staff, but between guests. There’s the Mossbacher family: Nicole (Connie Britton), a top executive; her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), who seems to feel emasculated by his success (he has a fear of health literally involving his testicles); their son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), insane and living on his phone; and their coldly terrifying daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), whose sidekick Paula (Brittany O’Grady) is bound by the unwritten rule that she must never have something Olivia doesn’t have.
By the pool are also newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), on their honeymoon that her wealthy family has paid for. As she wonders if she rushed into a marriage in which she is a second-class citizen, he becomes obsessed with the suspicion that Armond has placed them in a premium suite that is slightly less premium than the one they have. reserved.
Shane is a jerk about it, but he wasn’t wrong, and the growing passive-aggressive battle between him and Armond becomes the twisting heart of “The White Lotus.” Armond’s usual flattery is no match for Shane’s relentless lacrosse stick. Lacy, who has often played nice good guys, is beautifully whiny, and Bartlett plays the manager like a coil spring who spends the week disastrously relaxing.
Their conflict isn’t about a room, or the coveted plunge pool Shane was denied, or even, ultimately, the money. Shane knows he has the power in this dynamic, and his insistence on getting his pound of sashimi-grade flesh becomes a sadistic quest. (Our company lacks a male equivalent for a “Karen” short for the privileged white antagonist who would like to speak to your supervisor, but after this series it could be a “Shane”.)
These themes of serpents in Eden are familiar to White. In her two-season masterpiece, “Enlightened”, Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) suffers a wobbly journey from nervous wreckage to social justice crusader, after a rehab trip to Hawaii where she has a revelation while swimming. with sea turtles – an image which is taken from “The White Lotus”. (Another perhaps salient credit was White’s stint as a contender on “Survivor: David vs. Goliath,” in which underdogs and overdogs faced off on a tropical island.)
White’s characteristic tone is both sardonic and heartfelt. He knows how people can turn idealism into a weapon; he understands how the language of self-care and self-help can spoil the old self-interest. The flip side is that he is a writer generous enough to find vulnerability in even his most squeaky characters.
You can see it in Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), coming down from the VIP boat in a depressive haze, with a plan to disperse the ashes of her deceased mother at the resort. She could easily switch into a talkative caricature of a woman, but instead she has damaged authenticity and flashes of self-awareness. You feel for her – but that doesn’t excuse the emotional-vampire bond she develops with spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), another one-sided relationship dominated by the person paying the room fees.
“The White Lotus” could use more attention on the bottom half of its story at the top and bottom; he thumbs through, but doesn’t really explore, the lives of the native Hawaiian staff who occupy tables and perform rituals at dinner time. And it tends to be topical at times, with its references to crop wars, Mad Libs, triggering and cucking, undoing and doxxing.
But this is a strong and moving series that knows its characters perfectly and grows richer as it goes. It’s vicious and a little sparkling then, out of nowhere, slyly uplifting. In addition to his classy bite, he has a genuine sense of beauty and awe. We all work and play and live and die under the same sun, says “The White Lotus”. Some of us just manage to sunbathe more than others.