In mid-July, as the delta variant just began to tighten its grip on American communities, viewers turned their minds to the luxurious Hawaiian fantasy presented in HBO’s “The White Lotus” (2021), which follows a spattering of ridiculously wealthy vacationers and staff at a fictional resort of the same name. Instead of blissful escapism, though, the series offers occasionally sharp social satire mixed in with top-notch character work that proves the show to be much more than a lowly pandemic binge.
From the outset, the show lets viewers know that it will be a murder mystery. After an unknown body is loaded onto a plane, the show flashes back to the beginning of the vacation, before the murder. Most shows would hyper-fixate on the mystery, but “The White Lotus” merely uses it as a tool to suck viewers in — show creator Mike White is clearly more intent on characters and commentary than surface-level plot. White’s meticulous writing easily gives way to thunderous performances from the whole ensemble, especially Murray Bartlett, who plays the genial hotel manager, and Jennifer Coolidge, who plays an absurdist caricature of an overly wealthy grieving woman. The performers gracefully balance the earnestness of their characters with witty comedy — though Coolidge’s Tanya is laugh-out-loud funny from the moment her character enters the show, it’s not hard to sympathize for her desperately lonely character.
The rest of the production complements White’s vision just as well as the excellent performances; notably, the soundtrack is stuffed with tropical-spa melodies that only add stress and anxiety to the tense happenings at the resort. Similarly, the costumes add detail and nuance to the characters. While college student Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) preaches to her parents about the inequalities of capitalism, she frequently sports high-end vintage tees and Golden Goose sneakers.
The HBO murder mystery is becoming quite a tired trope — recent hits like “Big Little Lies” (2017–19) and “Mare of Easttown” (2021–) leaned perhaps a bit too heavily on the thrill of the genre. Luckily, “The White Lotus” has more to say — it consistently points out the gross hypocrisy of white liberal one-percenters as it takes on race, class and the legacy of colonialism in its idyllic Hawaiian setting. It’s peculiar that such a show, satirizing the white upper class, would be marketed so directly at the people it criticizes. Ideally, the audience would recognize itself in the vast array of characters relaxing by the pool, but perhaps the show takes these characters to such extremes that a consistently naive and ignorant group of white elites could never relate to. Would family dad Mark (Steve Zahn) ever see any piece of himself in the grossly entitled newlywed Shane (Jake Lacy)? Unlikely.
Even beyond its social commentary, the show feels a bit like a cool manipulation of classical Greek tragedy. It deals with concepts of fate, as the foretold death lurks over the otherwise relatively tame plot. There are complications and metaphors for parenthood scattered throughout the show, with Armond (Bartlett) suggesting to a trainee that guests are like needy children, desperate for the staff to simultaneously provide them with everything they want while acting like their “mean mommies.” Maternal relationships in particular take center stage, with Tanya struggling to muster the courage to scatter her mother’s ashes and Shane’s mother crashing his honeymoon. Then there’s the more overt callout to the lotus eaters of “The Odyssey,” who, much like the guests at the isolated resort, eat magical lotus flowers and live in blissful ignorance of the troubles of the world around them.
The serial format even allowed viewers to take to social media once a week to discuss and recap each episode in choral fashion. Indeed, the show generated quite the cultural phenomenon for otherwise-bored summer viewers and certainly delivered on the thoughtful writing part.
The show takes on a lot, with juicy, nuanced characters and rich social commentary. While the murder mystery was a nice touch, and the reveal proved satisfactory, it wasn’t entirely necessary. For a show that so obviously had other priorities, the mystery was lost and felt a bit hastily done. That said, those other priorities were executed to near perfection — it’s up to the viewer to decide how to receive those cultural critiques.