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A man and a woman in light coral – her polo shirt fits perfectly with the shade of his jacket; he has a clipboard and she has a tray of fresh towels – stand a little anxiously near a beautiful beach, as if they are waiting to be rewarded or punished. He gives her advice, including this:
The goal is to create an overall impression of ambiguity for the guests, which can be very satisfying, where they get everything they want, but they do not even know what they want or what day it is. Or where they are, or who we are, or what the f *** is going on.
That’s how we meet manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and first-day intern Lani (Jolene Purdy) as he explains the atmosphere they go after as they wait for VIP arrivals to a Hawaiian resort called The White Lotus. The staff should barely exist for their guests except as an indescribable blur of impeccable service, he explains. She should try to be “generic”.
The week that these VIP guests will spend on The White Lotus is the subject of the unique new six-episode limited series of the same name from creator Mike White (Enlightened, School of Rock) which premieres Sunday night on HBO. And in the brief statement, Armond describes how the wealthy guests see not only their time at the resort, but their time on earth: They do not rethink who they are or where they are as long as they get what they want.
Meet the guests
We are following three guest parties during this chaotic week. The first is Mossbachers, a family that includes technical director Nicole (Connie Britton) and her husband Mark (Steve Zahn), their college daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and their 16-year-old son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) plus Olivia’s friend Paula ( Brittany O’Grady), implicitly brought along as a guest to prevent Olivia from grabbing all the time. The other is Shane and Rachel Patton (Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario), honeymoon on whose marriage license ink is almost not dry. And the third is Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), a wealthy single woman who arrives in desperate need of a massage, transparently worried and intending to find a place to disperse her mother’s ashes.
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In addition to Armond, we learn another White Lotus employee very well: Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the spa manager who specializes in pampering guests who are almost completely white and rich. She treats them not only spa experiences, but also healing of other kinds, including patient and intimate counseling.
It’s hard to overestimate how piercing a satire White has written here, not about the flat horrible villains you find on many “get a lot of these rich jerks” shows, but about the failures of people whose humanity, in some cases, he leaves expansive space to explore.
When your focus is on the two Pattons together, for example, their example seems to be the story of an unbearably rich man who has married a smart and kind young woman who too late realizes that her husband is a spoiled bully. But Pattons also interacts especially with Armond, and when you look at them in that context, her relative kindness seems irrelevant. They act in that story as a privileged and bullying entity that both benefit from how Shane uses power and money, whether or not Rachel privately opposes it.
Similarly, Mossbachers at first seems to be a relatively benign version of the very rich family moving through the world with appropriate “thank you” and “it’s nice to see you” gestured, frustrated by their withdrawn son and their ugly daughter. Sydney Sweeney, who also played the gentle and vulnerable Eden in Maid’s Tale, turns here into one of the most convincingly hateful depictions of a rich young brat coming along for a while.) But there is a sense of guilt for Olivia, who hangs around Nicole and Mark because they have built the person she becomes, even when they ineffectively roll their eyes and lecture her. Regardless of their conscious attitude to how a person should behave, they have raised someone who meets and treats the rest of the world as Olivia does, and that indicates them.
And Tanya – yes, Tanya is needy and in pain, and Belinda is a helper by nature and profession. Their relationship is one of a client and a service provider, but it takes further effort as Tanya becomes more attached to and impressed by Belinda, who remains guarded on the other side of her bright smile as Tanya insistently blurs the boundaries between them.
The work that Coolidge and Rothwell both do here is so subtle and so emotionally complicated that when you reach the end of the story of six episodes, it has the feeling of inevitability that comes from being full and rich – and fair – given who these people are and build their story not around tropics but around the unshakable truth.
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Race certainly plays a significant role, though most unspoken, in the power structure of the white Lotus. The fact that Belinda is black and Tanya is white is fundamental to the way they interact at each level and to how they ultimately see each other. Paula, who is the only guest in colors we meet, is also the only one of the Mossbacher party who is interested in the staff or opposes the way Hawaiian culture is used by the resort as entertainment or decor. And much of the staff seems (logically) to be native Hawaiian and surrounded by white guests who come into play in a story arc.
The cost of not noticing
It would not be fair to share the ways in which Armond fits into the stories of each of his guests, other than to say that he has shortcomings, just as his guests have, but he does not have their money or status. Even as a manager, he knows that he is largely gracious to their whims, their threats, and the outward frustrations they can take beyond him. As he explains to Lani, guests should be best treated as small children who just want to feel special and who get angry when someone says no. But in this case, of course, these tantrums can ruin the lives of others. Bartlett has a lot to do in this series that plays Armond, as what at first seems like official and bottomless good cheerfulness takes other forms, and he is unusual in making the character sympathetic, aggravating, appealing, and exhausting.
The white Lotus is for the most part a story about the cost of malicious inattention, as the first episode shows. Within this hour, a character is driven to wonder how they could have been so focused on other things that the most obvious features of another person’s life were obscured. And time and time again, guests at the resort demonstrate that their interest in the world is narrow and self-respecting, and that they lack the humane peripheral vision that would make them treat other people better than this. This, Mike White suggests, is what very rich people spend money on: to get what they want from people they don’t even have to think about. Ignoring the inner life of others is therefore a primary manifestation of privilege.
It’s hard to say that a story is a blatant accusation of privilege without making it seem medical, which The white Lotus is not.
It is sharply fun, beautiful to look at in coral and blue-green and masterfully scored with a combination of original music by Cristobal Tapia de Veer and well-chosen songs. These songs are richly varied, including Hawaiian music like “Hawai’i Au” by The Sunday Manoa as well as pieces like “On A Coconut Island” by Louis Armstrong and the Polynesians that sound like the established pop culture island paradise that exists as such in the performances about tourists.
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The show is clever about details – while Olivia and Paula arrive as best friends, they are not the same: Olivia shows up in a college shirt while Paula says “POST HOPE.” And a recurring use of water and sea images, especially in the story of Mossbachers’ son Quinn, gives a link back to the fact that this is a place that was beautiful and magical long before anyone built luxury suites there, and that many of the resort’s guests are determined to miss out on the greatest pleasures.
There could hardly be a better moment for this series, filmed during the pandemic, to arrive. Has there ever been a worse year for so many workers? Has there ever been a time when they risked more just to get other people’s groceries, clothes, booze, books and sourdough starters from point A to point B in exchange for crumbs? Plus doctors and nurses, public health experts, researchers, teachers, so many people just wanted their work recognized as labor by real, often struggling people.
The white Lotus is sometimes exactly what its premise suggests: a very funny show about rich jerks (Jake Lacy is as effective as Shane that you might never see him again like you did as a nice guy on shows like The office). But where it shines most is like a story about who should care about how other people feel and who doesn’t, and about how often this difference comes to money.
Looking at The white Lotus is like biting down on a very fresh lemon when you get the tenderness, sweetness, vitality and the cool acid on the tongue. It is certainly memorable and it will wake you up. But there is a bitterness that runs on its brightness and it lingers.