A sign that a television show is really working for me is if it commences by immediately establishing a hook for viewers to latch onto for its duration, in this case the sight of a coffin being loaded onto a plane, yet by its conclusion my enjoyment of the series is not entirely dependent on how satisfying the payoff is. A shot of a coffin being loaded onto a plane in the opening minutes of The White Lotus instantly imbues Mike White’s comedy-drama with a level of intrigue, and the following six episodes track the events that culminated in such a grim sight. What becomes apparent as the opening instalment unfolds is that this programme is not simply a murder mystery or a crime narrative. In fact, there are instances where viewers may forget about the forthcoming tragedy in lieu of witnessing how several dysfunctional relationships, taut exchanges, and identity crises are resolved. The thrill of White’s satirical piece of television is not finding out whodunnit; it is watching its immensely gifted showrunner tackle several issues such as class divisions, gender roles, and grief in a simultaneously poignant and hysterical fashion.
Set in a Hawaiian resort from which the series obtains its title, The White Lotus follows numerous guests and employees over the course of a week. The manager of the resort is Armond (Murray Bartlett), who welcomes visitors such as newly-weds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy), the Mossbacher family, whose matriarch Nicole (Connie Britton) is the CFO of a search engine, and Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a woman coming to terms with her mother’s recent passing. Some interactions between the guests and the workers are amiable, notably Tanya’s dynamic with the resort’s spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), while others, such as Armond and Shane’s, start off rather frosty before becoming considerably more heated. The tension is not limited to the clients and the employees however, as a handful of the guests end up spending their vacations reflecting upon key decisions they have made in their lives and questioning their futures, leading to a few interfamilial clashes.
The visitors arrive at the White Lotus carrying not just physical but emotional baggage, with long-held secrets, fears, and repressed memories weighing them down to varying extents. White lets the inhibitions of these individuals simmer over the course of the six episodes until the appropriate moment comes for them to reach boiling point. Crucially, he also gives viewers a look behind the curtain of the resort as we observe the behaviour of the staff, who are often forced to bear the brunt of the attendees’ frustrations. While they may be seen as little more than props by their clients as they indulge in the pleasures of the Hawaiian setting, White illuminates the impact this perception has on the workers as they go about their daily business. The performative element of service industry jobs is emphasised significantly, with the likes of Armond putting on a brave face one moment before bemoaning the antics of the guests once he is not in their line of sight. The satirical nature of the storytelling facilitates incisive commentary on the economic disparity between the two groups through rather farcical scenarios, with frivolous complaints about the room one particular visitor is staying in developing into a fraught conflict. White is walking a fine line between presenting an earnest depiction of this imbalance and revelling in the absurdity of certain situations, but he does so exquisitely.
Many viewers will be on the side of the White Lotus’s employees when they share interactions with the guests, however Mike White ensures that the members of the latter group are not all painted with broad strokes. They all exert a form of privilege, yet the show eventually splits them into different levels of their own socio-economic period. Characters like Nicole and Shane are arguably the most transparent examples of wealthy individuals displaying a complete lack of self-awareness of their fortunate position, too concerned with immaterial matters to pay attention to the struggles of family members such as Nicole’s husband Mark (Steve Zahn), son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), or Shane’s wife Rachel. There are several scenes involving figures from various parties attending the resort, two of which feature Rachel conversing with members of the Mossbacher family, that are absorbing not only for the cutting remarks made by the characters where White’s sparkling dialogue comes to the fore, but the impact these interactions have in shaping specific individuals’ decisions for the rest of the narrative. The opulent position enjoyed by these people leaves viewers in an unusual position whereby they can laugh at particular personalities’ expense while also feeling slightly sympathetic towards them, as certain issues carry a ubiquitous resonance.
One would expect texts boasting a Hawaiian setting to revel in the beauty of the location, and although White and cinematographer Ben Kutchins beautifully capture the remarkable surroundings, not once does The White Lotus come across as a six-episode commercial for the US state, mainly because there is the sense of dissatisfaction which looms over proceedings. This feeling is mainly elicited by the characters being more agitated than relaxed, but White is also able to explore the incongruity between their impression of Hawaii and the history of the area without it coming across as heavy-handed. Paula (Brittany O’Grady), a friend of Nicole’s daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), befriends a staffer at the resort named Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) and this sets in motion a narrative development which highlights the extent to which upper classes have taken advantage of Hawaiian culture for the purpose of tourist appeasement. She is appalled at how Olivia’s family disregard the historicity of the traditional dance performed by the native Hawaiian employees, stating “Watching Hawaiians dance for all these white people that stole their islands, it’s depressing”, Paula collaborates with Kai on a plan which she thinks may serve as some form of payback for imperialist exploits. While another project, ideally helmed by a Hawaiian native, would be able to deliver a more nuanced look at the complex relationship between the state and its tourist industry, White nevertheless displays appropriate awareness of its reputation to offer a further indictment of the ignorance and inconsiderate attitudes of the elite.
Featuring tremendous turns from every member of the ensemble cast, The White Lotus makes for a highly entertaining watch for its entire duration, delivering plenty of humorous set-pieces as well as candid ruminations on social status. Mike White’s series is certainly one of the television highlights of the year so far, and the confirmation of a follow-up is a piece of news worth getting extremely excited about.
All six episodes of The White Lotus are available to watch on NOW TV.