The Satire Is as Rich as the Clientele in HBO’s The White Lotus

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The White Lotus. HBO and HBO Max. Sunday, July 11, 9 p.m.

One sure-fire way to make your summer vacation seem more satisfying is to watch HBO’s sly, darkly funny social satire The White Lotus, which chronicles a week at a lush Hawaiian resort where the guest activities include sibling ostracism, murder, hand-to-hand combat with testicular cancer, class warfare, and defecatory vengeance. If you can’t find something in here to enjoy, you’re just not trying very hard.

Created and written by Mike White (HBO’s Enlightened), The White Lotus is something like a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and Fantasy Island, with strife—alternately wielded with scalpels and machetes—breaking out practically everywhere: between plutocrats and plebians, parents and children, trophy wives and trophy holders. Much of it is driven by mutual incomprehension. (A posh mother-in-law seeking to reassure her son’s proletarian wife: “A trophy shines. It’s a source of pride.”) Some of it is unintentional but lethal, like the “vast carelessness” of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. And some is purely malicious. (Mom to teenage daughter: “Your generation’s only sacred value—biting the hand that feeds you.”) Whatever the cause, from the very first frame of The White Lotus, every relationship is crumbling.

The combatants include the Mossbacher family: corporate tycoon Nicole (Connie Britton, Nashville), who can only disembowel her enemies from a correctly fen-shuied room; her husband Mark (Steve Zahn, The Crossing), whose castration complex over money has only been exacerbated by his failing penis; their alienated, nerdboy son (Fred Hechinger, The Woman in the Window); and their daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney, Sharp Objects) and her college BFF Paula (Brittany O’Grady, Star), both locked and loaded with the lethal smugness of the newly woke.

The Mossbachers often brush up against honeymooning couple Shane (Jake Lacy, I’m Dying Up Here) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario, Why Women Kill). He’s a spoiled rich kid obsessed with the idea that they got cheated on their plush hotel suite; she’s clinging to the rapidly deflating delusion that her career as a clickbait internet reporter matters to anybody now that she’s married into a uber-wealthy real estate family. And then there’s Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge, 2 Broke Girls), who has come to Hawaii to scatter the ashes of her recently deceased mother. Recurring erotic fantasy: being alone on a Himalayan mountaintop with a cyanide capsule. She identifies herself, not inaccurately, as “a straight-up alcoholic lunatic.”

Playing the guests from behind the scenes—or trying to, anyway—is the resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett, Tales of the City), a foppish alcoholic five years sober but getting itchy. So unobservant that he doesn’t notice his new executive assistant is not only pregnant but a couple of hours from delivery (on his office desk, as it turns out), he’s making mistakes—double-selling rooms, particularly—that put him on a collision course with the bratty Shane.

Much of the humor (and some of the occasional pathos) in The White Lotus derives from the pure obliviousness of the super-rich, so accustomed to the armor-plating that money provides that they don’t even notice when it goes glitchy. When Olivia and Paula are caught shotgunning the contents of their traveling pharmacopeia, their snap excuse—”We’re just doing witchcraft”—goes right over parental heads. So does a warning from one of the girls that the jury-rigged lighting that Nicole has set up for a big Zoom conference call with other corporate overlords is making her look “deranged.” Replies Nicole absently: “I have a filter for that.”

Yet The White Lotus is no populist jihad. The plutocrats may be unmindful but not cruel. Some of the plebes really do turn out to be thieves and louts, and much of the humor is subtle enough that it’s hard to tell in which direction it’s intended to cut. When the college kids are asked if they’re really reading the volumes of Freud and Nietzsche they lug to the pool each day, one of them replies: “No, we get them from set dressers.”

There’s a joke there, but I’m not sure on whom. In the morally indifferent world of The White Lotus, it doesn’t seem to matter.

 


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