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“Wave like you mean it, Lanny!”
So instructs resort manager Armond, played by Murray Bartlett, early on in Mike White’s intoxicating HBO limited series “The White Lotus.” Armond, the feeble-gesturing Lanny (Jolene Purdy), and a few more members of The White Lotus staff are standing at the edge of the island, ocean spray crashing into their smiling faces, in an obligatory greeting for VIP guests arriving by boat. Though casually tossed in among a flurry of advice for his new employee, Armond’s urging for the appearance of sincerity says so much about what comes to define the next week, for the local workers and vacationing lodgers, as well as the delicate egos of the latter group and how they manipulate the former into doing whatever they damn well please.
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Like “Enlightened,” Mike White’s previous HBO series, “The White Lotus” defies a simple description. Episodes are an hour long, but each features jokes that Deborah Vance would envy. Social satire of the rich and entitled is unceasing, but there’s still room for personal growth among select characters. Perhaps most surprising is the opening framing device: Before Armond & Co. greet their guests and introduce our story’s swank setting, the premiere flashes forward one week, when Shane (Jake Lacy) is sitting alone at an airport, preparing to fly home, and an inquisitive couple asks him about the murder that took place at his hotel.
Is “The White Lotus” a murder-mystery? Yes. Is it also a comedy? Absolutely. Does it confront the harsh truths of America’s wealth gap by studying a contained batch of subjects on either end of the ever-widening spectrum? It would be weird if I said, “No,” so yup, that’s there, too. White’s latest work is also an ensemble showcase with a handful of unforgettable performances — Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge top among them — as well as a paradox unto itself, in that it’s extremely addictive and consistently uncomfortable. Conceived and shot during the pandemic, “The White Lotus” is many things, but it’s nothing short of a marvel.
Aside from the murder, the essence of “The White Lotus” emerges through carefully chosen dynamics fleshed out between masterfully built characters. The aforementioned Shane arrives on the island with his new wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), though the just-married couple aren’t exactly cut from the same cloth. Shane becomes immediately preoccupied with the quality of their room, first claiming they’re in the wrong suite and then picking a fight with Armond over a booking he didn’t even make — his wealthy parents bought the “best” stay for the newlyweds. In case it’s not clear by his status-obsessed arrogance, Shane comes from money, and in case it’s not clear from her job as a “journalist,” Rachel does not. (One of the better character-defining moments comes when Rachel tells two holier-than-thou college sophomores she “profiled” one of their parents, before clarifying, “Well, it was actually repurposing someone else’s profile: a ’10 Women Kicking the Corporate World’s Ass’ type thing.”)
The Pattons’ financial divide is just one way White illustrates how unchecked privilege can distance people — from reality, and from each other — but before you judge Rachel too quickly, know that the two smug students doing just that aren’t exactly beyond reproach; Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady) are on vacation with Olivia’s parents, Mark (Steve Zahn) and Nicole (Connie Britton), the latter of whom is a “big deal” CFO at a company called “Poof.” While her husband can’t stop worrying about the size of his balls (he’s waiting to hear from his doctor about a cancer screening), Nicole can’t stop working; their son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) isn’t the most engaged teenager (his face is rarely more than two inches from his phone or portable gaming system), but even this socially awkward child soon asks his father if the real reason he’s so anxious is because “mom makes more money than you.”
Mario Perez / HBO
Quinn’s blunt statements are an ideal foil to his sister’s snide insinuations; Olivia’s favorite pastime is being hypercritical of her mom, her brother, and utter strangers. She and Paula are introduced making up backstories for all the guests on the boat, and while some presumptions hit the mark, the young women can’t help but presume the worst of everyone around them. (Paula is even wearing a “Post Hope” t-shirt alluding to Shepherd Fairey’s Obama poster.) Given that Paula is a guest of the well-off Mossbacher family — and perhaps the only person of color staying, rather than working, at the resort — the duo’s friendship isn’t equal and evolves accordingly; her Blackness introduces conversations the uber-white family isn’t ready for, but even Paula’s proximity to their entitlement pushes her into dangerous ethical territory, and “The White Lotus” finds fascinating ways to examine well-intentioned activism that’s wrapped in a self-centered understanding of the world.
Still, the most reliable source for laughs — and heartache — stems from Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the resort’s spa manager, and Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), a rich woman in distress over her mother’s death. A brilliant Coolidge embodies Tanya with a kind of giddy, unhinged detachment; it’s like she’s on another planet, and the hotel staff have to tune their radio frequencies just right if they want to be heard. Belinda is particularly good at adjusting the dial, and Rothwell’s subdued efforts to keep her conversations with Tanya on track create dynamite comedy. (One joke, during their first consultation, is so funny I immediately asked my wife to listen in, just so I could share it with someone.)
These kind of impermeable disconnects separate people time and time again in “The White Lotus.” Within the walls of this five-star paradise, White has found an ideal allegory for American privilege: Everyone lives in the same space, but there’s no sharing going on; the guests take and take and take, whether it’s for the sport of it or because they think it’s their right. They are, after all, the guests. They’re there to be taken care of, and the staff only exists because they’re needed. If they’re no longer useful, someone else will take their place, to ensure the satisfaction of those who matter. As Armond advises Lanny during the opening scene, “Self-disclosure is discouraged. […] You don’t want to be too specific as a presence, as an identity. You want to be more generic. It’s a Japanese ethos, where we’re asked to disappear behind our masks as pleasant, interchangeable helpers — it’s tropical Kabuki.”
So wave like you mean it. Otherwise, you might not make it out of here alive.
“The White Lotus” premieres Sunday, July 11 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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