REVIEW: The White Lotus Delivers an Unflinching, Wry Look at White Privilege
Cass Clarke
HBO's The White Lotus is a dark comedy about the best-laid plans of white privilege and the employees who are forced to clean up the inevitable mess they leave behind. The six-episode limited series has a Coen brothers feel, quickly showing it doesn't take long for the resort goers to find (and create) problems during a supposedly relaxing getaway in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Written and directed by Enlightened creator Mike White, The White Lotus is a satirical take on how more money causes many more problems for those serving the wealthy. The plot centers mainly on The White Lotus' eccentric and demanding guests: Sheryl Sandberg-like matriarch Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), her purposeless husband (Steve Zahn), her listless son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), her Freud-obsessed daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her popular friend Paula (Brittany O'Grady); the not-quite-happy honeymooning Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy); and Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) a grieving, wealthy woman looking for love. The series is not shy about detailing the annoyance that a "one more thing" attitude can bring to the table, including closeups of forced service smiles.
At times, this wry approach is so direct that it chooses to lean more into discomfort than its comedy, a la Silicon Valley. That satirical choice works overall, but it'll likely come off as too sharp to viewers expecting quippy fare. Before the guests arrive in Episode 1, the audience meets the resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) training Lani (Jolene Purdy) -- who nails the reoccurring role and is a joy to see on-screen whenever she does play a part in The White Lotus' shenanigans. Armond instructs her to be "general," declaring that the best kind of service is a mixture of anticipating the needs of others while being invisible.
Anyone who's worked a day in the service industry can clap at Armond's words, but its darker delivery feels amiss. Leaning more into the show's dramatic elements than its ironic, situational comedy, Bartlett's Armond is, at times, too scathing for the role. His "happily" off-kilter attitude would fare better in the hands of someone like Tony Shalhoub -- who mastered a similar anxious restraint and balance of comedic timing in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
However, Rachel and Shane's dynamic cleverly embodies the larger show's statement in a more personal format. As the young, just-married couple get down to brass tacks about whether or not Rachel now needs or even wants to work after marrying into Shane's wealthy family, the wide-eyed Daddario hits a strong emotional chord. As she slowly uncovers her husband's stubbornness and over-reliance on his mother -- played by a beautifully neurotic Molly Shannon -- so too does the audience, leading us to empathize with her struggle to stay career-focused and face the overwhelming absurdity that a lifetime of wealth can normalize.
That being said, it's really Coolidge's Tanya who steals the show. The White Lotus guests all have their reasons for wanting a vacation, but it is Tanya whose reason for being there -- to finally let go of her mother's ashes -- that feels the most compelling to watch unfold. Coolidge is known for her supreme ability to play off of and against protagonists and being all the more memorable in the process. (Is there even a Legally Blonde without Paulette?) However, The White Lotus really gives her a chance to delve into her multifaceted talents, unlike her prior roles. As Tanya attempts to romance her masseuse Belinda -- portrayed by an empathetic and attuned Natasha Rothwell, who is a master at a well-timed pause -- after discussing their mutual feelings about having lost a mother, audiences are treated to Coolidge's comedic over-talking at just the right time, expressions of her characters' deeper vulnerabilities and verve.
Overall, The White Lotus is a show that requires a little patience at first. Given its unlikable characters taking center stage, it does take some time to see the neurosis or egos at play; but, once that is given, the writing shines. It's a show that's perfect for those that have-not or have-less to find cathartic humor in the trivial nature of wealth and the dramatics it brings.
Written and directed by Mike White, The White Lotus stars Jolene Purdy, Murray Bartlett, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Lacy, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Rothwell, Steve Zahn, Kekoa Kekumano, Brittany O'Grady, Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger. The limited series debuts its first episode on HBO and HBO Max July 11.