Every now and then, you see a new series — Succession, say, or Chernobyl or To the Lake — which reminds you why you watch TV. The latest such joy is The White Lotus (HBO), a darkly comic satirical drama created, written and directed by Mike White.
White seems to be a curious and engaging character with lots of hinterland. His father used to be a speechwriter for ‘religious right’ preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (and later came out as gay). He wrote the charming comedy School of Rock because, though not himself a rock fan, his friend Jack Black wanted an excuse to perform all his favorite songs. He was runner-up in the competitive reality TV show Survivor: David vs. Goliath. He wrote, produced, directed and starred in a 2011 comedy series called Enlightened, which HBO canceled after two seasons due to low ratings despite critical acclaim.
An auteur, then, who likes total creative control, who won’t play the game, and isn’t afraid to go where his whims take him. This time, it’s to Hawaii and one of those scenarios with which many of us can identify (journalistic freebies, in my case): the mega expensive, ultra exclusive boutique-resort hotel.
It starts with an enticing hook: Shane (Jake Lacy), a handsome, moneyed, basic, mommy’s boy jock in a Cornell baseball cap is in a departure lounge being quizzed by a nosy couple about what we gather was the honeymoon from hell. Meanwhile, a cardboard box marked ‘human remains’ is being loaded into the hold of the aircraft. And where exactly is Shane’s bride?
We then flash back a couple of weeks and watch the cast of this disaster arriving at their luxury resort. There’s flaky, overweight, blonde Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge — Stifler’s mom in American Pie), clutching a box containing the remains of her mother; there’s super-capable millionaire search engine CFO Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), her vacuously handsome appendage of a husband Mark (Steve Zahn) and assorted college kids; and, wearing a cheesy rictus beneath his mustache, is Armond (Murray Bartlett), the nothing-is-too-much-trouble, gay, Aussie resort manager, there to greet everyone with the usual cool flannels, cold drinks and oleaginous welcome spiel.
Over the next few episodes everyone’s dream will turn to a nightmare and though it couldn’t happen to more deserving people (almost everyone is too rich, selfish, spoilt, arrogant, or a combination thereof), you never quite lose sympathy with any of the characters because they are so complex, well drawn and superbly acted.
The Mossbachers’ sophomore daughter Olivia and her friend Paula, for example, are bitches from hell: pretentious (Nietzsche paperbacks by the pool), sardonic, horrible to Olivia’s sweet but socially awkward teenage brother Quinn, ruthless, catty, ungrateful and grindingly PC. But as well as being frighteningly realistic (this really is an exquisitely well-observed show which is going to make a lot of viewers go: ‘I’ve been there! I know these people! This is my family!’), they are redeemingly human: the whispered, girl-friendship intimacies when they do drugs together; the fragile, vulnerable, barely-grown-up children visible just beneath that cultivated, brittle exterior.
Throughout there’s an air of brooding menace redolent of Jordan Peele’s racially charged satire Get Out, in which privileged whitey gets his comeuppance. The resort, we learn, has been built on land effectively stolen from the Hawaiian natives. And there’s something suspect in the unequal power relationship between Tanya and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the black spa manager whom she takes under her wing. Anything could happen at the end, you think, up to and including an If.…-style massacre.
But White is too sinuous and sophisticated a writer to go for anything crass or obvious. He invokes this particular culture not (in fact definitely not, I’d say, given what happens as a result of Paula’s well-meaning plans to engineer a socially just outcome) to endorse its shibboleths but rather because it has become a Thing in the contemporary world which we must all somehow negotiate. His ending reminds me a bit of the ending of The Sopranos: oblique, unpredictable, not quite what you wanted yet satisfying because it feels like real life.
Everyone in it is so good it’s almost invidious to single out special performances. But the star turn has to be Bartlett as resort manager Armond, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who becomes deliciously, hilariously, apocalyptically unstuck when he gains access to a stash of drugs. The determined expression of malevolent joy on his face after he’s snorted his first line of ketamine and sets forth on his mission of bacchanalian debauchery is worth the price of admission.