You can tell a lot about a person by the books they carry on vacation. The beach-reads, the masterworks, the books you always meant to arrive at, ones you wouldn’t be caught dead reading among people you know, ones you want to reread. Those pages hold vacations from vacations, and the new HBO comedy-drama series The White Lotus (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar) cannily uses books to flag its weird ensemble of characters.
Therefore two precocious and nasty young ladies sit poolside in a gorgeous Hawaiian resort reading The Portable Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation Of Dreams, an insecure journalist reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and — most accusingly — her bratty husband reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In bed. On their honeymoon. In a show peopled by ultra-privileged and problematic characters throwing their considerable weight around, the one reading the superficial self-help book about passing judgement is the one we judge the most.
Yet, because this is a series by Mike White — the man who created the extraordinary series Enlightened, also streaming on Disney+ Hotstar and featuring the marvellous Laura Dern at the height of her powers — it disarms the viewer with prickly self-awareness. When the Gladwellian asks those reading Nietzsche and Freud whether they actually read those books, the women wearily deadpan back that they are, in fact, just props: “We have a book stylist pick out our books.”
The White Lotus is set in a Hawaiian luxury resort of the same name, where the very wealthy come to feel very pampered as they scuba around dolphins and have local islanders perform traditional dances as they dine. The guests are obnoxiously entitled, and the resort manager brilliantly likens the hospitality business to that of indulging a child. The guests need to feel seen and heard and validated, which means each guest wants to be treated not only as a child, but as an only child. “The special, chosen baby child of the hotel.”
The guests are a predominantly white handful. There is exactly one person of colour—a girl invited along by her friend’s family—and each suite-full of holidaymakers appears clueless about career, family, love, privilege and medical health. The six-episode series takes place over a week at the resort, enough time for the smiling and unflappable manager Armond (a wonderfully wonky Murray Bartlett) to gradually go full-metal Fawlty Towers as he snaps at staff, sneaks midday drinks, all while straightening his carefully casual shirt collar, bracing himself for the next guest assault.
You can’t blame him. Gladwell reader Shane Patton (Jake Lacy) demands an upgrade to the Pineapple Suite for his honeymoon and refuses to be deterred by complimentary champagne. The high-strung Tanya (a fantastic Jennifer Coolidge) wants to release her mother’s ashes into the ocean but is literally unable to let go. Then there are the Mossbachers, where whiny husband Mark (Steve Zahn) has caught the manager’s fancy while the Mossbacher daughter and her friend have lost a bag full of pills and ketamine on the beach. None of these are promising signs for Armond, struggling to stay sober.
The cast is super, the writing even better. When Nicole Mossbacher, a high-end CEO of a cannibalistic technology firm (played by a frequently sighing Connie Britton) is told her daughter’s friend is a Highly Sensitive Person, she scoffs at the diagnosis: “Who’s her physician, Lena Dunham?” Sydney Sweeney of Euphoria is terrific as Nicole’s daughter Olivia, woke-censorious about the world and smiling her widest when her little brother’s iPad is washed away by the tide. Nicole is contemptuous of Olivia’s bright, barbed tongue, questioning what her generation stands for — “Not capitalism. Not socialism. Just cynicism?” — while Mark assures Olivia things aren’t as bad: “Liv, your mother is not Putin.”
Mark is dealing with a lot, from a potential cancer diagnosis to revelations about his father’s life and death, leading him to leer at women at bars and talk to them about priapism and leprosy. One of the women he makes uncomfortable is Shane’s wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a journalist who isn’t as good at her job as she wants to be. “I wrote a profile on her,” she says, spotting Nicole at the resort, then corrects herself, “Well, it was repurposing someone else’s profile.”
These white, lotus-eaters provide heavy ammunition for any satirist, and White takes pointed, less obvious potshots while acquainting us with these warped people. Much is captured by the way Olivia’s friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) glance at those around them, dog-paddling in their own cluelessness. Yet these are furtive glances, the glances of those who judge as they partake, those complicit in the crimes of the privileged, those taking advantage in order to find their own footholds.
The White Lotus was filmed in late 2020, its production simplified by the island resort location providing a safe bubble for the cast and crew, but while covid-19 is not mentioned on the show, it could well have been. The show could easily be set in a world where the coronavirus exists for less fortunate people, exploring those wealthy enough to evade the pandemic as they seek out Instagram spots.
The series opens with a corpse. We are informed someone died on the island, and the story unravels in flashback, implying that one of the characters we will meet and pass judgement on will eventually be offed. Yet, as these characters come into their own, this bit of intrigue is all but forgotten. We have waded in too deep, recoiling as we recognise bits of ourselves in these petty guests scattered around this gorgeous, sun-drenched and visually striking series. The White Lotus may pretend to be a beach-read, but don’t judge it by its cover.
Streaming tip of the week:
The irreverent and unpredictable British-Malaysian comedian Phil Wang has a new special on Netflix called Philly Philly Wang Wang. It’s uproarious.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.