Throughout his curious career in film and television, both in his role as screenwriter and director (he’s an actor, too), Mike White always cultivated a kind of comedy between eccentric and social, going from full-fledged satire to somewhat more indefinable specimens of the genre. From CHUCK & BUCK a SCHOOL OF ROCK, from FREE NACHO a BEATRIZ AT DINNER (film with Salma Hayek that dealt with a similar issue), White’s scripts always bet on an uncomfortable, harsh and absurd humor at the same time. THE WHITE LOTUS, the series that he writes and directs (a new episode is uploaded to HBO Max every Sunday) does not escape this improbable sum of categories. And, at least after its first two episodes, one can find the wit, the sharpness and also a certain malice present in its previous series and films.
With all the episodes written and directed by himself (as was the case with ENLIGHTENED, series with Laura Dern which is also available on HBO Max), THE WHITE LOTUS focuses on a group of passengers who stop at a luxurious hotel in Hawaii, whose name gives the series its title. Right from the start – it starts at the end, or so it seems – we are told that someone died in that heavenly place, which gives the whole plot the structure of a thriller or suspense comedy. Throughout the hours and episodes we will get to know the characters and see that, in one way or another, they can all be both the victims and the perpetrators.
The place is beautiful –in a five-star Resort & Spa sense– but the people who visit it are not so beautiful. Or that’s the first impression most of them make. One of the local employees says it very clearly in the second episode: “Here come people with a lot of money and they are not usually the kindest in the world.” But prints can be misleading. As everything can change from episode to episode, we will say that so far it is a group with a high percentage of apparently very despicable people.
The most irritating are family members who make up Nicole (Connie Britton), the “progressive” CEO of a company; her overwhelmed husband Mark, who thinks he has cancer (Steve Zahn); his arrogant and cruel teenage daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), his equally annoying friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and the couple’s other son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), who lives on his phone and his games, and seems not to endure none of the others. There is also a newly married couple, which integrates Shane, the whimsical heir of a millionaire family (Jake Lacy) and his troubled wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), the closest thing this universe has to a more or less centered and… normal person. Or so it seems.
The group of tourists is completed with Tanya McQuoid (the great Jennifer Coolidge), a billionaire lady and depressed by the recent death of her mother who traveled to dump her ashes into the sea. And at the same time there are some important characters among the hotel managers. like the always uptight ex-alcoholic manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and the friendly Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), hotel spa manager with whom Tanya develops a very friendly relationship. And in the first two episodes we observe how they are linked, related (90 percent of the time surrounded by tension, annoyance and various annoyances) and some small complications that foreshadow what seems to be the “police” destiny of the matter.
As also happens with HACKS -Excellent series that is on the same platform-, these are those shows that seem to have taken advantage of empty hotels during the pandemic to film stories that take place largely in places of this type and their surroundings. In that series, in Las Vegas. Here on Maui. The setting lends itself to enjoyment but the protagonists are in something else. Shane can’t stand that they haven’t given him the room he asked for, his wife is uncomfortable when he asks her to quit his job, teenage friends are on their own planet but they still get in trouble and there are some crossings that several have with the unstable Armond that they make us suppose that this man hides many things under his “ship captain” smile.
White presents the viewer with a difficult challenge since it is very difficult to sympathize with any of the characters. Even those who least clearly abuse their privileges also appear to be potentially troublesome in one way or another. Yes THE WHITE LOTUS She has a point of view with which to identify perhaps that of Belinda, the African American who knows how to do extraordinary massages and seems very understanding and compassionate towards everyone. Or Rachel, who is the only one who does not come from a world of money and is uncomfortable with the way almost everyone around her behaves.
That is the risk of this kind of satire that brutally attacks the so-called “one percent,” as the wealthiest people in America are known, the privileged even within the privileged. It can be funny, for a while, to “make fun” of the most irritating habits of these types of characters, but at the same time it is usually exhausting, as much as having to put up with people like that in real life. In a sense one could say that SUCCESSION works on a universe of similar people (although those are already 0.1%, let’s agree), but there is a mixture of humor and emotional connection with them that, curiously, ends up making them more human.
THE WHITE LOTUS It is a miniseries of only six episodes and it seems like a good idea that its mystery, its social satire and its universe unfold in that limited, contained way. There is material here to imagine strange, tense, funny and even distressing situations, but we know that we will not have to live with these people for years. With White at the helm, in addition, you never know where things are going to shoot. And that’s one of the potential pleasures of this weird, awkward, funny series.
It is that although it seems to be a satire on privileged millionaires and their most hateful habits, one never ends up knowing with what strange twist its writer / director will come out. In times when most series and movies seem put together just to satisfy and congratulate audiences for getting on the “right side” of things – where villains are often predictable based on factors that go beyond the plot in yes–, the unpredictability of its creator’s work gives THE WHITE LOTUS an extra expectation. In four Sundays (the series concludes on August 15) we will know if he managed to escape the trap in which he decided to get himself by making it.