“Money is the greatest evil of all” is a familiar and relatable idea, and Mike White’s limited series “The White Lotus” adapts observations of late-stage capitalist burnout into an uncomfortable, revealing, insightful, and empathetic scenario on an island full of special people who are well aware of how scarce their air really is. The cast that White has put together is a play on balancing the thin wires strung between horror, tragedy, and comedy, and the writing is consistently spot on, deeply humorous, and utterly unsentimental about the way humans consciously and subconsciously hurt one another. Alternately funny and unsettling, “The White Lotus” isn’t a comfortable watch, but it’s a must watch.
White, starring Laura Dern’s “Enlightened” remains a treasure trove of HBO’s archives, returning to the network for the six-part limited series “The White Lotus,” which premieres on July 11. The opening credits of “The White Lotus” lead you into the series’ sometimes subtle, sometimes flashy “wealth lets rot” mentality: Beautiful, tropical wallpaper designs of flowers, pineapples, iguanas, and leopards quietly turn into scenes of decay. Snakes hide among bunches of bananas. The fruit rots on the vine. The caterpillars eat the leaves until they hang limp, pockmarked and dying. Jellyfish circle around people, seaweed strangles a fish, and a three-man crew battles their canoe against the swelling waves. Will they make it through, or be dragged down?
“The White Lotus” places that question, in both literal and figurative incarnation, on the shoulders of every character who arrives by charter boat to the remote and exclusive White Lotus hotels and resorts in Hawaii. In openings like the “Big Little Lies” reveal, “The White Lotus” shares that someone here is going to die, and then jumps back in a week’s time. Among the tourists are the Mossbacher family, consisting of tech CEO Nicole (Connie Britton), her husband Mark (Steve Zahn), sophomore daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), and teenage son Quinn ( Fred Hechinger). Also on vacation are newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel Patton (Alexandra Daddario), and grieving Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), who has brought her mother’s ashes to be scattered overboard. These three parties are not friends, but they are as close to each other as people passing by on the beach, in a bar, in an elevator, or in the hallway. They recognized each other as the same kind of people, all part of the mega-rich who could afford this kind of place.
Meanwhile, the White Lotus staff aims to be, as the fussy, cranky resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) tells employees in the premiere episode of “Arrivals,” “more general.” The goal, Armond explains, is to “disappear behind our masks as fun and interchangeable helpers… The goal is to create an overall impression of obscurity for guests that can be very satisfying.” Maybe it’s good business practice, and for a state like Hawaii—which is surviving on tourism, and the struggle of its citizens against very wealthy outsiders is ongoing.—that’s what makes wealthy tourists happy. But then Armond took it a step further, and Bartlett delivered a bitter message that instantly cut the staff/tourist divide: “They got everything they wanted, but they didn’t even know what they wanted. Or what day is it. Or where they are, or who we are, or what is going on.”
Armond’s mask of tolerating guests’ wishes, demands, and complaints begins to fall off, and his increasingly manic behavior worries spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). She has a passionate belief in holistic health, and she works too hard for too little pay, but she dreams of one day opening a business that will make spa offerings affordable to everyone. (If Rothwell’s bombastic work on “Insecure” is your only realization of her as an actress, be prepared for her to blow you away with her nuanced and stretchy work here. Her final moments on screen will haunt you.) And during that week, Armand, Belinda, and various other members of the hotel staff are pulled into the orbit of the guests, their neuroses, and their selfishness, mostly for the worse and rarely for the better.
Perhaps the idea of watching a group of rich people do rich people’s things to the dismay of long-suffering people sounds exhausting. But “The White Lotus” hits the same note as Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” by poking and pushing the class divisions of its characters and offering pieces of empathy and compassion to individuals trapped in systems, patterns, or behaviors they cannot escape. . Are hotel guests cruel? In the way Don Draper told Michael Ginsberg he didn’t think about it at all, yes. Shane of Lacy, born into an elite family and constantly nagging new wife Rachel about why she isn’t having fun, turns Armond into an enemy over petty complaints. Tanya, who covers her trauma and neuroses with layers of nude lip gloss and designer caftans, views Belinda as her spiritual healer without ever asking herself questions. And Judith Butler- and Franz Fanon who read, do drugs, and screw up Olivia and Paula in a seduction fight with a hotel worker.