Halfway through the new season of The White Lotus — which was one of the finest shows of last year — I wondered if creator Mike White was borrowing from a 20-year-old Abbas-Mustan film. Watching married couples circle each other like scorpions, lashing out through seduction and barely passive aggression, I felt this series may be going the way of Abbas-Mustan’s Ajnabee, that Akshay-Bipasha-Kareena-Bobby starrer involving manipulation, illicit nightmares and — unforgettably — everything being planned. Dear reader, it does not. However, after watching five of the seven episodes given to critics for review, I must admit Mr White would actually have done well to follow those filmmakers who wear white.
The new season of The White Lotus — streaming on Disney+Hotstar from October 31 — is set in sumptuous, sun-drenched Sicily. The staff and clientele of the Hawaii-based resort from the first season are gone, save for Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya, visibly a frequent guest who hasn’t let the death and drama get in the way of another go-around. Our new obscenely rich clients and put-upon staffers are in an Italian haven, and — blame it on wine or weather or the debauched, fornicating frescoes in the opening credits and on the walls — everyone seems helplessly horny.
This gets tiresome. The actors are excellent, and excellently chosen, but the season’s single-minded focus on sex — as currency, as livelihood, as outlet, as overture, as secret — feels exasperatingly superficial. The poetic first season was about eating the rich, a strong and telling satire about the obliviousness of the 1% and their casual cruelty, but basing an entire season on sexual politics is a stretch, particularly when so few insights break new ground. It feels like a retread, the way different vacations all look the same when viewed on an Instagram grid.
The first season, shot during the pandemic, forced the characters to holiday within the resort ,which made the show about resort life itself — we viewers knew where the bar was, what time you could get a massage and which fruit the better suite was named after — which provided vicarious delights to audiences trapped at home. Now, with characters freed to explore Sicily and neighbouring gorgeousness, their paths cross less casually, and the resort staff are relegated sadly to background roles.
And then there’s death. For some guests, this lovely resort is also the last resort. The first season started by telling us somebody died, and that dread shadowed the storytelling as we wondered both who would be axed and who would do the axing. This season, we are told the body-count is higher, that “a few” guests have died, and while the climactic reveal might yet be startling, it’s hard to get invested in characters who are almost entirely unlikeable. Also, far too many of them explain themselves via conveniently expository phone calls in the opening episodes, spelling out their backgrounds and contexts.
It’s a far cry from the subtly telling first season — my review had me decoding characters based on books they were carrying on holiday — but Mike White being Mike White, his characters still get delicious lines. A newly affluent couple describe their situation as “LARPing as rich people,” a woke youngster tells his father and grandfather their love for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather comes from being “nostalgic for the salad days of the patriarchy,” and a young woman describes an eligible man thus: “He’s nice. He went to Stanford, and… he’s not non-binary.”
F Murray Abraham sparkles as a wicked old man flirting with every woman in sight while questioning his son’s manhood, Michael Imperioli is superbly stressed as his hapless son who can’t keep his trousers buttoned, and Adam DiMarco plays the grandson, all beach shorts and bewildered sincerity, as if a cross between the two protagonists of Call Me By Your Name. Aubrey Plaza always plays caustic well, but here uncertainty flashes in her eyes as she plays a wife wading out of her depth. Will Sharpe (the British creator of the superlative series Flowers, on Netflix) is very good as her early rising, self-congratulatory husband. Meghann Fahy (from The Bold Type) plays a sunny yet heartbreaking character, an all-seeing wife who turns a blind eye, and — as in the last season — Coolidge is powerfully poignant, even though her malaise feels less urgent this season.
The best performances are by Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Granno, playing two Italian prostitutes seduced by the pleasures and possibilities of the resort. Bright-eyed and reckless, each takes turns enabling the other to take things too far. Their giddiness is infectious. (They speak mostly in Italian, but when one flirts with an American guest, he breaks out that most caucasian of surprises: “Your English is really good.”)
“You’re like the heroine of your own Italian opera,” a character tells the outsized, larger-than-life Tanya. “Does that mean I’m doomed?” she asks. He assuages her, saying her story must end differently, that she is, quite simply, “too fabulous to be sad.” This season of The White Lotus feels sobering and blunt, a cold shower watering down our expectations after an essential first season. I might not yet know who is doomed, but as a series, this is pretty and vacant, and feels like the opposite of Tanya. It’s too sad to be fabulous.
Streaming tip of the week:
All 9 seasons of the mid-1990s sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Starring Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle and Brad Garrett, the series about a sportswriter and his wife living across from his parents and brother remains wonderful comfort food.