“The White Lotus” is HBO’s gorgeous and gripping summer mystery, a languid look into the intersecting lives of elite vacationers and resort workers at a Hawaiian hotel. From the first moments, viewers learn someone doesn’t make it home. The rest of the show keeps you guessing as to whom. It’s patient but somehow fast-paced, aesthetically beautiful but thematically ugly, hot but smart, like the bespectacled Jennifer Aniston of summer TV.
Elegance aside, the show litigates intersecting sociopolitical battles with rare subtlety —and it’s a fair hearing, too.
Like most prestige television, “White Lotus” is replete with antiheroes. To the extent any character is heroic four episodes in, it’s Belinda, a massage therapist who enchants Jennifer Coolidge as a perpetually drunken woman of means vacationing alone with the goal of spreading her mother’s ashes in the Pacific. From Coolidge to Steve Zahn, “White Lotus” is impeccably well cast. It’s a pleasure to watch the collection of criminally underappreciated talent (Connie Britton, Jake Lacy, Molly Shannon) flex their muscles with a sharp script in a beautiful setting.
Antihero fatigue is real and understandable. In “White Lotus,” though, the decadence of vacation amplifies the flaws of the elites and inflames their tensions with resort workers. Britton’s Clinton-loving, “Lean In”-style girl boss fights with her cynical Zoomer offspring. Zahn, her hapless husband, grapples with their power imbalance and tries to relate to their “alienated” son. (Britton’s character describes him as such in episode four.) Tanya McQuoid, Coolidge’s charter, wields uncomfortable power over Belinda’s future. The drugged-out “Euphoria”-style Zoomers fight among themselves.
In one sense, “White Lotus” is refreshingly unserious, like a soapy beach read that keeps you flipping from page to page. In another sense, it’s serious enough to wade into cultural criticism, but without a heavy hand. No party, aggrieved or privileged or both, seems poised to emerge unscathed.
That could very well change, and that could very well be for the better. The Clinton-loving Boomer elite are ripe for a reckoning, having controlled corporations like HBO for a generation. But “White Lotus” is heading somewhere more interesting, somewhere that taps into our common humanity without lionizing people for being rich or poor, old or young, male or female — but without ignoring the salience of those traits either. And the series is not just good because the bar for decent cultural criticism has sunk so low in Hollywood. It has. “White Lotus,” though, is great television.
If the show renders its final verdict against the Boomers or the rich or male, sure, there’s a way that could be perfectly fair and useful. But it’ll be braver as scorched earth. Most of us deserve it, and that’s much more interesting.
Litigating these tensions over the course of a tantalizing tropical mystery makes “White Lotus” a pleasure to watch and a contender for the year’s best series.