Rimming. Death. Theft. Romance. Drugs. Squatting to poo in a suitcase. HBO’s new show The White Lotus has all the elements that make up a great TV series.
But summing the show up is a bit of a challenge. It begins with a death but it’s not really a murder mystery; there are plenty of funny lines but it’s too sad to be a comedy. It’s been compared to reality TV and described as a “social satire” and it’s a great example of the modern TV show that manages to do it all: unconstrained by genre, it does succeed – like its closest comparison, Succession – in being hilariously funny one minute and desperately sad the next.
The action begins on the eponymous Hawaiian resort but we already know that, seven days prior, someone has died on this holiday. We look at the guests – tech CFO Nicole Mossbacher and her privileged white family; new bride Rachel and her privileged white husband; “alcoholic lunatic” Tanya, also privileged and white – and wonder who might meet their maker by the end. Yes, this is a show about privileged white people. And, chasing after them to keep them happy, are the slightly more ethnically diverse staff.
In episodes that are often almost an hour long, the show is given time to breathe. The run time never really feels exorbitant because the writing – by Mike White, who created and also directs the proceedings – manages to make every character feel like a real person whom we are just eavesdropping on. The guests have come to The White Lotus to get away from it all but they seem, in fact, never to get any privacy in the slightest. When she is already having a nightmarish time, Rachel finds her honeymoon being gatecrashed by her husband’s overbearing mother.
In every character there are existential conflicts happening all the time. Hotel manager Armond, played to perfection by Murray Bartlett, tries to hide a Basil Fawlty-like disgust for his guests; Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge, magnificent as well) is here to dispose of her mother’s ashes and cruelly uses spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) as an emotional crutch without realising quite what she’s doing; Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) realises she basically loathes her husband; Mark Mossbacher (Steve Zahn), Nicole’s husband, dissolves when he learns that his late father used to sleep with men; Paula (Brittany O’Grady), friend of the Mossbachers’ daughter, falls in love and makes a terrible mistake.
There is so much there, all the time, bubbling to the surface, and it would take an impatient viewer not to be seduced by it all. Rarely is there a moment where one of the guests isn’t unhappy or angry, confused or offended, and White manages to balance it all without the whole thing feeling false or like the worst parts of a soap opera. This, as many failed TV shows prove, is a Herculean effort. We are lucky to have shows like The White Lotus. We should scoff them up while we can.
‘The White Lotus’ is on Sky Atlantic from August 16