by Patrick Heavey
HBO’s summer hit The White Lotus is, for better and for worse, a show of the times.
Filmed during quarantine, its premise revolved around a closed setting and a limited cast specifically designed to make that possible. The White Lotus forsook any acknowledgement of the pandemic, instead focusing on the class tensions the pandemic illuminated. Written and directed by Enlightened creator Mike White, the show is named for its aforementioned closed setting, a Hawaiian resort where three excessively wealthy parties take vacation.
Each of the three storylines, including a family that brings along their college-age daughter’s best friend, a honeymooning couple that spars with the hotel manager, and a sole grieving woman who becomes fixated on her masseuse, are built around a central class divide. Each relates to statements on the incredible social power wealth provides, and builds to crescendos of thoughtless cruelty doled out by the upper class to those around them. Furthermore, The White Lotus is careful not to oversimplify, recognizing that the station occupied by the formerly middle-class wife of a one-percenter husband is very different than that of the hotel manager, which is also different than that of his employees.
All of which is not to say that the show is didactic; its primary concern throughout is the humor it can reap from showing the behaviors of the insipid rich at their most comfortable. On that note, The White Lotus’s social commentary works even better when functioning on a small scale, as White’s incisive writing peppers in perfect minute observations among broader gags.
The White Lotus is by no means flawless, however. One notable concern is unevenness, which occurs both across storylines (White never quite manages to make “sad woman who like massages” as interesting as, well, anything else) and for the dialogue of characters across economic and racial spectrums. A generous read of this would contend that White is a natural satirist who’s at his strongest when writing for the privileged characters he resents. A less generous read would assert that White is, uh, white, as well as fairly wealthy himself, and simply has a comfort zone.
But the biggest problem of The White Lotus occurs in its opening scene, taking place after the vacation ends, wherein one character, while sitting at the airport, eyes a box labeled “human remains.” The scene promises a show that The White Lotus simply isn’t, and the “One Week Earlier” card that follows is a jarring trip through genre, tone, and subject matter. The understated, semi-naturalist storytelling that forms the lifeblood of The White Lotus is undermined at every turn by this tease of a climactic death. The expectation that the viewer should watch with bated breath, waiting to see who’s in the coffin, is fundamentally out of sync with the show’s supposed goal of meaningful social criticism.
When it finally comes time to reveal who’s in the coffin, The White Lotus admittedly makes perfect choices regarding both the ‘who’ and ‘how,’ with the (lack of) consequences forming as poignant a statement as anything else in the show… at least on paper. In execution, The White Lotus treats the death as an afterthought and gets it over with as quickly as possible, seeming to be embarrassed for having committed itself to such sensationalism in the first place and recognizing that it is nowhere near tonally capable of dealing with the implications of its choices.
But The White Lotus cannot simply wish its “human remains” away. The heightened stakes of the death make it a black hole, sucking in all attention of the viewer, and every minor character beat of the show (and especially the finale) must compete with the tragedy hanging over it. Ultimately, The White Lotus is a slice of life painting with a mismatched pulp frame, obfuscating and distracting from the more interesting, subtler contents within.
As explained by White in an interview with Vulture, his idea for the in-media coffin tease came as a reaction to his failure to gain popularity with previous shows, such as cancelled-before-its-time Enlightened. Though one can hardly blame White for hoping to see his show get renewed, the lazy gimmick he inserts can’t help but be recognized as the desperate, cynical gambit it is. The White Lotus may require attention to survive, but the last thing it needs is to give viewers another reason to compare it to HBO’s last lushly photographed miniseries examining the lives of the wealthy.
Two bad scenes cannot ruin a show, and The White Lotus is still one of 2021’s best, most timely offerings. It’s only a shame that it reflected its era just as much in its startling underestimation of the viewer as in its deeply relevant social commentary.