Rating: 3 out of 5
Managing expectations can be tricky. When you introduce a mystery to an audience, they usually anticipate that not only will their questions be answered but that the unraveling of said mystery will occupy the duration of the narrative. Not the case with Mike White’s The White Lotus. While it begins with an intriguing whatsinthebox? The show is more intent on being a character study of a select few wealthy, largely obnoxious Americans who slowly but surely become more self-conscious and extremely likable towards the end of the series. This is both to the show’s benefit and to its detriment that you end up genuinely caring for most of these characters as they are supposed to be deplorable and petty. Which of course they are, however, Mike White’s screenplay is so tightly wound and expertly executed that the sense of class consciousness which this show threatens to live inside is thwarted at each moment by how clearly drawn these characters are.
The story begins with Shane Patton (Jake Lacy) in an airport being interrogated by two fellow travelers about a dead body that will be on their plane this afternoon. He is hostile towards them implying some involvement in the deadly affair, the narrative then flashes back to a week prior when Shane is on a boat accompanied by his newlywed wife Rachel (Alexandra Dadarrio) with a group of other wealthy socialites on a boat headed towards a tropical Hawaiian island. The implication is that any one of these characters could be involved in the death of this unknown individual but this is abandoned in favor of deep character exploration. Which again, is both to the credit of the writing and also indicative of the almost amnesiac tendency of the plot to drift away from its initial intent towards something broad but perhaps more pleasurable, which consequently undermines the intended goal of the series.
The other occupants of the boat that join them are the Mossbacher family, led by the matriarch Nicole (Connie Briton) a tech mogul and her husband, the pathetic (and hilarious) Mark (Steve Zahn), as well as their children Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) who brings along her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is the final member of this entourage, though she has no association with anyone on the boat, her outsider status and idiosyncratic nature make for many of the series most poignant and genuinely compelling moments, Coolidge imbues this otherwise vain and perpetually intoxicated character with an awkward grace that proves to be one of the most essential performances of the famed character actresses career. The other primary characters are employees of the resort, the titular White Lotus, led by Armand (Murray Bartlett) and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) who are interesting characters in their own right but are unfortunately eclipsed by the problems of their guests.
This is an ensemble work so there are often prolonged periods of following one or more of these characters until their narratives intersect and merge, sometimes in more natural and fluid ways than others. The contrast between them is often as superficial as the problems themselves which leads to some of the least interesting arcs of the series, primarily in the children, both Olivia and Quinn are insufferable, while Olivia’s friend Paula convinces herself she is some proletariat messiah in one of the most aggravating tragedies that occurs in this series. And this is where the show falls apart for me, while it’s goals are clearly stated, the methods by which it “achieves” them is disingenuous and far too focused on making sure we can stand it’s main players to say anything substantive with it’s obvious (and at times arrogant) sense of meaning.
The White Lotus is not going to change the world or instigate any contemplation in ether it’s audiences or the lonely elite which it attempts to satirize, but it will lead to several hours of genuinely bingeable entertainment which is all to rare in an era that flexes its ability to produce media that encourages uninterrupted viewing. Between Mark, Armand and Tanya there are enough engaging personalities to propel you towards the end of this unfortunately predictable but nonetheless comical drama. Each of the aforementioned characters endure existential crisis that are simultaneously farcical and earnest, which is the sweet spot in which this show exists, when it strays from this quality it begins to suffer a dilemma of identity, where it deeply desires to sympathize with the plight of the worker but instead favors the trivial complications of the wealthy. Perhaps best exemplified by the pregnant character the show writes out of the series in the first episode. Her narrative is minimized in favor of the unmitigated gravity of those she was born to serve. A show not to be trusted but enjoyed.