Sun, sea and schadenfreude: why do we love a telly holiday gone wrong?

'The White Lotus' and 'Nine Perfect Strangers' are the latest shows to pick up on our sadist tendencies

Ah, holidays. The sand between your toes, the beating sun on your face, the lateral flow testing stick ever so lightly shoved up your right nostril. There’s no greater release than getting away to a beachside paradise – even if the current climate means that’s more likely in Margate than Marbella…

The other option, of course, is to watch other (richer) people pamper themselves on telly instead; be that on private boats, via last minute head massages or – in the latest example of this very popular TV trend, The White Lotus – pregnancy tests flown in by private jet. HBO’s hit miniseries is the newest show to indulge in a bit of disaster porn.

A wonderfully compelling, soapy, high budget, high class and high-stakes take on a holiday gone wrong – basically if Benidorm were made by Harrods – it expands from the initial notion of a honeymooning wife realising she doesn’t actually like her douche of a new husband, into a wide-ranging and scathing social satire on privilege, wealth, sex and race – all on a luxury Hawaiian island.

The White Lotus
‘The White Lotus’ is out now on Sky and NOW. CREDIT: Sky

As much questionable fun as it is watching (as a lot of you are) ‘normals’ being wretched to each other on a sun-kissed sex island, throw in the extra layer of resentment, duplicity, jeopardy, and passive aggressiveness which comes when a few zeros are added to the current account balance, and you have something that is positively Shakespearian – layer upon layer of maladjustment and abnormality. This is deftly illustrated in Jennifer Coolidge’s wonderful ‘Onion’ speech in episode four: “At the core of the onion… is just a straight-up alcoholic lunatic.” The sunny, paradise-like climes seem to magnify the misery, forming an almost ironic backdrop – a place that should be full of fun and joy being stacked to the gills with anything but, dappled sunlight falling on miserable faces, sugary cocktails being sucked by puckered lips.

The same can be found, though with a much more exposition-loaded touch, in Nine Perfect Strangers. Nicole Kidman, fresh from playing a rich person with issues alongside Hugh Grant in last year’s hit series The Undoing, slips seamlessly into playing a rich person with issues. Though, to be fair, this time she has an entirely different (yet somehow equally unconvincing) accent. The premise is similar, privileged people trapped in a golden cage. In this case it’s a picture-perfect wellness retreat in Northern California – their neurosis placed under a very strong magnifying glass, and allowing the sparks to fly. The ‘wind them up and watch them go’ spirit is very alive here – a modern day version of a cock fight – us normals standing at the side and screaming at one rich person to hit another. At least they’d feel something…

It arguably all comes back to schadenfreude. From German – the most romantic of all languages – this beautiful word hones in on that part of us which exists where we take pleasure in another’s pain.

Nine Perfect Strangers
Nicole Kidman and Samara Weaving in ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’. CREDIT: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

Yes, the storylines may be compelling, the words beautifully written, the characters well drawn, the acting exemplary, and the photography stunning but, be honest, if it was set in Pontins Southport and centred around people taking their allotted two weeks off from Aviva then I doubt your enjoyment would be quite as delicious, you sadist. If they can’t be happy with everything they have, what hope do you have?

Now excuse us, we’ve just heard on Reddit about a rich person fight club taking place in Deptford Arches tonight, and we want to get down there early so as to get some decent odds and also make sure all the good canapés haven’t gone.

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