The gathering percussion, discordant flutes and layered moaning of the theme of The White Lotus, which plays over a tropical wallpaper replete with dead and decaying fruit and fish, sets the tone for a show which has beguiled and deeply unsettled viewers.
The six-episode HBO Max series (available on Binge and Foxtel) gradually overtook the cultural conversation as it dropped weekly from mid-July, and if it hadn’t missed out on Emmys eligibility because of the timing of its release, the satirical comedy drama would surely be dominating the upcoming awards.
I know it’s set in Hawaii.
Yes — and don’t we all need a little travel porn right now?
The series takes place at The White Lotus, a fictional luxury resort in Maui, Hawaii’s second-largest island, and follows a group of holiday-makers and the resort staff who must cater to their every whim — with disastrous consequences.
Stop Everything!’s Benjamin Law says The White Lotus is “about class, it’s about money, it’s about wealth, it’s about exploitation and … it’s really about white enlightenment always coming at the cost of Indigenous people and people of colour“.
Why was my feed full of people guessing who ends up dead?
The series opens with a Hawaiian Airlines flight being loaded with human remains — but don’t be fooled, this isn’t your usual prestige TV whodunit.
Okay so what’s the plot? Who’s the cast? (What’s with the Jennifer Coolidge memes?)
After the opening scene, we flashback to a group of wealthy tourists arriving at The White Lotus.
Among the group are newlyweds Shane (a rich “male Karen” played by Jake Lacy) and Rachel (a mediocre journalist struggling with her new husband’s wealth, played by Alexandra Daddario).
Jennifer Coolidge (iconic in Best in Show, Legally Blonde and American Pie) plays alcoholic caftan queen Tanya, who arrives at the resort towing her late mother’s ashes — and, it has to be said, kinda steals the show.
Then there’s a dysfunctional family: tech SHE-E-O Nicole (Connie Britton), hapless husband Mark (Steve Zahn), device-fixated teenager Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and woke college students Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who are stuck in a perpetual state of eyeroll.
The White Lotus staff include spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), Native Hawaiian staffer Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) and hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett).
You’ll just have to watch the show to find out who — amongst the guests and the staff — emerges unscathed.
Murray Bartlett! He seems familiar…
Yes, you may recognise the Australian actor from Home and Away and The Secret Life of Us.
Bartlett spoke to Jason Di Rosso on The Screen Show about playing the unravelling Armond: “He has such a public facade that he has to keep up as the manager of this hotel, but he’s got this rich inner life full of demons … he represents what happens when you can no longer keep that mask in place.
“Mike White [The White Lotus’s creator] is so brilliant at writing three-dimensional characters … [they are] incredibly funny but there’s a humanity that always comes out that allows you to connect and identify with them.”
Who is Mike White? Why is he trying to mess with me?
Mike White is a writer, director and actor who has penned small and independent films like Orange County and Beatriz at Dinner, alongside writing mainstream hits including School of Rock, The Emoji Movie and Pitch Perfect 3.
Among prestige TV fans, he is best known for another HBO series that skewers wellness and consumerism: Enlightened, which was cancelled after two seasons much to the dismay of fans and critics alike.
HBO approached White in the middle of 2020 after much of their programming had been delayed by COVID-19. White began writing The White Lotus in August, and by October they had begun shooting the series.
White, who has a home in Hawaii, told The New Yorker: “With this project, I thought it would be interesting to try to get in the heads of people who have more money and a little bit more power.
“[Hawaii] is such a paradisiacal, idyllic place. But it’s also such a living microcosm of so many of the cultural reckonings that are happening right now. There are ethical aspects to just vacationing there, let alone buying a house there. The longer I spent time there, the more I realised just how complex it is. And it just felt like that might be interesting as a backdrop to this show.”
Why is this deeply unsettling and often scatological (literally and figuratively) series resonating with audiences?
Law says: “We love to watch horrible behaviour that we probably have been culpable in if we’ve ever engaged in tourism. That complex feeling of discomfort exists for the audience because we’ve probably been there in some way shape or form.”
As White told The New Yorker: “I wanted them [viewers] to see the rich people in the show and think, ‘That’s me — I am that person. I’ve said those things. I’ve been defensive in that way.'”
By the way, the series’ unsettling music is by composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer (whose other credits include British series Utopia and Black Mirror).
What are the reviewers saying?
Naomi Fry in The New Yorker writes: “Mike White’s HBO tragicomedy is one of the best shows of the year.”
Linda Holmes for NPR: “Mike White saves his most searing and unforgettable condemnations for the same characters in whom he portrays the most humanity. The road to villainy begins, often, not with hectoring and not with insults, but with the quieter act of choosing your own comfort over what you know to be right enough times in a row.”
Jason Di Rosso says: “I think if it has a flaw, not everyone is drawn with the same level of complexity and depth that you’d hope. But on balance, the pile-on of farcical contradictions, fatal flaws and plain-old bad judgement on display make this satire one of the most conversation-worthy of the moment.“
But there’s been criticisms …
As Brook Obie writes in Refinery29: “Mike White ate his own lotus, took every dime of that HBO money and made himself the creator, the writer and director of every episode of a show that takes place on stolen land, using marginalised characters and colonisation as props.”
Hawaiian Mitchell Kuga writes in Vox that the show uses its few Native Hawaiian characters “as hollow plot devices in service of illuminating the inner lives of the series’s mostly white protagonists”.
“There isn’t a shortage of prestige television shows that take privilege as its muse. But imagine if more took seriously those who bear the brunt of that privilege.”
In an extensive interview in Vulture, Mike White accepted criticism and responded to Vulture/New York Magazine writer E. Alex Jung’s tweet about the way the show centres white people: “If I took that assumption to its fullest, it would make it so that I shouldn’t even be creating anything anymore. It’s a deep criticism of…