The runaway TV hit of 2021 is back for a second season. Sam Brooks reviews.
Last year was a stacked year for TV, but there wasn’t any other series quite like The White Lotus. Created by the great satirist Mike White (Enlightened, School of Rock), season one was set at a five-star resort on Maui, following the conflicts between the wealthy guests, and with the resort’s staff. It was hilarious, it was excruciating, it was somehow a murder mystery, and it was maybe the most perfect skewering of privilege that we’ve seen on TV. It was definitely the best deployment of Jennifer Coolidge, whose portrayal of a privileged rich woman managed to be comedically nuclear and devastatingly close to the bone at the same time. The series, and Coolidge, deservedly walked away with Emmys.
Its runaway success led to the series – initially only intended to run for those eight episodes – being renewed for a second season. This time the series relocates to another fictional White Lotus resort in Sicily, and brings us a whole new cast of haves and have-nots (played by Aubrey Plaza, F Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Tom Hollander, among others). Don’t worry though, Jennifer Coolidge also returns as the apocalyptically unaware Tanya McQuoid. In short: same shit, same shitty people; different day, different resort.
There’s nothing on TV quite like The White Lotus. No other show can make you love a character, then hate them, then swing right around to feeling sorry for them, all within the same scene. Mike White has always been a master of balancing cringe comedy and genuine pathos, and he continues his perfect run with the second season. There’s not a single dud note throughout the first few episodes, which is even more impressive given the the fact that The White Lotus continues to be, somehow, a really successful murder mystery.
At first glance, season two seems like more of the same: two super-rich couples forced to interact with each other, three generations of a family all lying to each other, Tanya McQuoid being delusional. It’s the subtle differences that make it worth it. Armond, the hotel manager played by Murray Bartlett was a highlight of season one, and the manager of the White Lotus Sicily, Valentina (a similarly brilliant Sabrina Impacciatore), is a clear standout here. Her outright loathing for seemingly everybody she interacts with, rich or poor, guest or staff, is where the season is strongest, and spikiest. It’s a constant reminder of the way that privilege erodes the humanity and soul of everybody who comes into contact with it.
While The White Lotus can often be excruciating to watch, you never feel punished for watching it. There’s always a reward for investing in the characters, be it Tanya’s hapless assistant Portia (a winningly frazzled Haley Lu Richardson) or F. Murray Abraham as a lecherous man on a mission to uncover his family’s roots. The series makes sure that any cringe moment is followed with one of poignant humanity. (It’s also worth noting that the score, a highlight of the first season, is equally great here, and the title music has been given a lift that makes it an honest-to-God bop.)
The not-so good
There’s nothing wrong with the series itself. Like, at all. The acting is impeccable, Mike White remains the best writer in television, and it’d be hard to make a five-star resort in Sicily look anything less than gorgeous. The issue is whether The White Lotus actually works as a satire. Even though we’re clearly meant to laugh at the hapless haves, feel for the have-nots, and cringe whenever they interact, the reality is that The White Lotus, by virtue of its prestige pedigree, is most likely to actually be consumed by the people it satirises.
That’s more a problem with the function of satire in 2022 than The White Lotus specifically, but as the credits on each episode roll by, it’s hard not to wonder if the show is patting you on the back and whispering, “‘It’s OK, you’re not like that”.
The White Lotus is, for me, the best show on TV. Other shows can make you laugh. Other shows can make you cry. Other shows can make you hide behind the couch because even being in the same room as what is happening on screen is too much. Very few can do all of them at the same time, while also featuring actors giving the best performance of their career (it’s Aubrey Plaza’s turn here, by the by), gorgeous vistas (booking my tickets to Sicily ASAP) and discourse worth digging your teeth into. Don’t miss it.