HBO’s new show, The White Lotus, is a well made social satire with an excellent ensemble cast. It follows the lives of several rich, privileged white guests at a Hawaii resort, and the staff that interacts with them. It is consistently funny and rich in characterization, able to build many complex characters over the course of just six episodes. It does a great job of exploring the animal urges of human nature–mainly sex–and the ways that we incorporate our baser instincts into a civilized society. While it occasionally asks thought provoking questions about the social issues it satirizes, including colonialism, racism, and social ladder-climbing within a capitalist society, its critiques of these institutions and their systemic injustices is sometimes not as profound as it aspires to be.
The story follows the resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and his employee Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who runs the spa, as they welcome three new groups of guests into the hotel. There is Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel Patton (Alexandra Daddario), newlyweds on their honeymoon whose squabbles over small things (whether or not they got the right suite) and big things (Rachel’s career as a journalist) mask larger issues about the dynamic of their relationship and their social class. There is the solo traveller, Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), who is grieving the death of her mother and plans to spread her ashes in the ocean. And then there is the Mossbacher family, Nicole (Connie Britton) and Mark (Steve Zahn), and their two children, Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and Olivia’s friend from college, Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Nicole is a bigwig in the tech world and has brought her family on vacation to get away from the constant stress of her busy corporate life. Her husband, Mark, struggles with issues of health, masculinity, and how best to connect with his son, Quinn, who spends much of his time playing video games and watching porn on his phone. Their daughter and her friend, meanwhile, represent the woke generation Z, who judge everything and everyone, including Olivia’s parents, through a detached lens critical of the capitalist system that has allowed her parents to afford the vacation in the first place, all while they think of ways to mix and match pills and pot and ketamine, enhancing the vacation by getting high.
At one point in the season, the Mossbacher’s argue at dinner over who should be telling the narrative, and shifting the narrative away from privileged white men, and this comes off as ironic since most of the main characters–aside from Belinda and Paula–are white, the climax in the final episode of the season is a kind of showdown between two white men of different social class, and the White Lotus’ creator is Mike White, who happens to also be white. But the show is acutely aware of these ironies and their optics, and does a good job at pointing the finger back at itself through humor and satire. It also does a good job of aligning us with its non-white characters in certain moments, showing us the world through Belinda’s and Paula’s eyes, giving them something to fight for, a better world to wish for, which is more than what can be said for most of the characters. Even though nothing really changes for Belinda or Paula and they don’t get to see their idealized future because of their positions in society and the huge obstacles of money and the systemic institutions already in place, we feel for them in ways that we don’t always feel for the other characters, and because of this, The White Lotus is mostly a success as a satire and a thoughtful character study.