Over eight years, as many seasons, and multiple spinoffs, the reality show Below Deck has exposed the dark side of sun-kissed vacations. The Bravo network has long made a science of filming the foibles of the very rich; Below Deck ups the ante by showing the rich from the perspective of the service workers forced to coddle them on a slew of gilded megayachts. These crew members have their own after-hours exploits, but we really watch to seethe in solidarity at the loathsome guests, an endless source of drunken meltdowns and general stress. While the clients make impossible demands, the stewards and deckhands perform emotional labor for tips. Behind every paradise is a fleet of underpaid serfs, bending over backward with a smile on their face.
The White Lotus, the new six-part limited series on HBO, is best understood as a scripted version of Below Deck. Set at a luxury resort in Hawaii that shares a name with the show, The White Lotus grafts the ambient tension of haves and have-nots onto the more immediate tension of a dead body in their midst. We learn in a cold open that someone has died at the hotel, the kind of secluded getaway you can access only by boat while a squadron of staff greet you on the beach. We then flash back to a week earlier, when a fresh crop of guests arrive at what they’re unaware will soon become a crime scene. A resort worker’s job is to make the world’s problems disappear, but there are some catastrophes even they can’t erase.
The show is the latest brainchild of writer, director, and creator Mike White, the acclaimed auteur whose biography could make for a compelling drama in and of itself. (White has an unlikely side hustle in adventure-based reality shows like Survivor, where he was a runner-up in 2018; he also competed on The Amazing Race with his father, a former evangelical pastor who came out as gay in the 1990s.) White has script credits on everything from School of Rock to Pitch Perfect 3, but his masterpiece to date is Enlightened, the short-lived half-hour dramedy that aired just 18 episodes from 2011 to 2013, also on HBO. Enlightened starred Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a white-collar employee at a banal, evil corporation who suffers a nervous breakdown and recovers at a New Age retreat in Hawaii.
The White Lotus shares many themes and motifs with Enlightened: an island setting; the commingling of capitalism with so-called “wellness”; middle-aged white women in existential crisis. But where Enlightened largely takes place after Amy has returned to California, depicting Hawaii in the past tense as an aqua-hued Eden in its heroine’s mind, The White Lotus shows the hard work that goes into making the territory turned state into a tourist’s breezy escape. Viciously funny, quietly furious, and, in the end, profoundly sad, The White Lotus is a poison pill served on fine china. It’s a crowning achievement not just for White, but for TV so far in 2021.
The Job-like, long-suffering figure at The White Lotus’s center is Armand (Murray Bartlett), an Australian hotel manager recovering from a drug addiction who has little time for subtext. “Self-disclosure is discouraged,” he advises a new employee. “You don’t want to be too specific. You want to be generic.” Personalities are for the paying customers, whom Armand regards with a kind of knowing condescension. “You have to treat these people like sensitive children,” he explains. “They just need to feel seen. They want to be the only child, the special chosen baby child of the hotel. And we are the mean mummies.” You can tell Armand is the true protagonist of the show because its view of the resort’s clientele so closely mirrors his own.
The latest group to wash up on the White Lotus’s shores are an eclectic bunch. There’s a couple on their honeymoon: privileged pig Shane (Jake Lacy) and his new bride, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a struggling journalist who doesn’t seem to know her entitled, abrasive new spouse too well. (So much for fact-finding!) Wealthy weirdo Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), whose flowing caftans can’t cover up her obvious unease, has come to disperse her mother’s ashes. Finally, Sheryl Sandberg–esque CFO Nicole (Connie Britton) has convened her family for some forced together time, though she’s still taking Zooms. Surly teens Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Quinn (Fred Hechinger) have their own distractions: porn and video games for him, drugs and Judith Butler for her. But while they may come from slightly different walks of life, the patrons share the qualities that matter most to those at the White Lotus—whiteness, wealth, the power that comes with them, and the blithe ignorance said power allows.
What starts as a misunderstanding over a honeymoon suite hardens into an instinctive antipathy between Armand and Shane, fracturing the hotel’s fragile peace along predictable upstairs-downstairs lines. (Armand senses a brat accustomed to obsequious deference; Shane senses a man unwilling to give it to him.) But there are also less obvious, more insidious forms of exploitation at work than a rich kid demanding special treatment. Tanya latches on to an empathetic masseuse named Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), a fixation that crosses a boundary when Tanya offers to finance a business of Belinda’s own. When Olivia’s friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) starts hooking up with a pool boy, she learns the hotel is built on land his family was displaced from. With its sprawling ensemble—we haven’t even mentioned Molly Shannon!—and cold class warfare, The White Lotus brings to mind the best of Julian Fellowes: less Downton Abbey with palm trees, more Gosford Park by way of Tommy Bahama.
White demonstrates a total mastery of tone as The White Lotus, er, blossoms into full-tilt chaos. His satirical targets are as clear as the Pacific water, though he never insults the viewer’s intelligence by pretending all the guests are villains, or all the workers saints. Armand is far from a perfect boss; Tanya’s money, we learn, failed to protect her from a lifetime of emotional abuse. But White’s collaborators, too, ought to be given their flowers, perhaps as leis. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins beautifully captures an endless golden hour; musician Cristobal Tapia de Veer combines traditional Hawaiian music, a classical chorus, drums, and nature sounds into a knockout score. The acting is uniformly superb, though Coolidge has already earned special attention for a role that gives her comic chops a strange and soulful side.
The title of The White Lotus may be a wink at its creator. It’s also a perfect summary of what the show is about: the race of nearly every guest we see, plus the flower you eat to forget what ails you in the world outside. Like the recent revival of HBO’s In Treatment, The White Lotus began as a practical response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a story easy to isolate at a single location. But what White makes of that isolation is so much more than a writing prompt. Whether it’s parents from children, husbands from wives, or workers from the means of production, everyone at The White Lotus is marooned on their own private island, away from what truly matters.