HBO’s ‘The White Lotus’ Is an Exotic Getaway That Satirizes American Privilege

Imagine taking a vacation with every representative of American privilege, with all of its arrogance and capitalist obsessions, in a lush locale. That’s precisely the experience of watching HBO’s new limited series “The White Lotus.” Its creator and director, Mike White, achieves a particularly hard feat. He has made a series that is dark, disturbing, and frank about our worst human flaws, but never depressive to watch. Like entomologists, we watch these characters as if they are under a microscope. It is ghastly entertaining and unnerving at the same time, because if we gaze too closely, we realize we might recognize a little of ourselves as viewers in a few of these decaying vacationers.

The six-part story is set in that eternal symbol of breezy vacationing, Hawaii. Arriving at The White Lotus hotel are a pack of Americans who bring baggage that isn’t always in suitcases. Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) are young newlyweds, with Shane being the selfishly aloof son of a very wealthy family and Rachel an aspiring journalist. There’s also the Mossbacher family, composed of CEO mom Nicole (Connie Britton), oddball dad Mark (Steve Zahn), son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and college-age daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), who is bringing along friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) is grieving the death of her mother and plans to spread her ashes into the sea, even as she eternally searches for the perfect massage. The resort is managed by Armond (Murray Bartlett), who on the surface looks calm and organized, but the psyche can only take so much when catering to snobs. Everyone is a ticking time bomb of sorts, with inner rages and frustrations fueled by not always getting what they want, or seeking happiness where there is none.

“The White Lotus” is a milestone of sorts for Mike White. As a writer his work has been a lot of mainstream, popcorn entertainment like “School of Rock,” “Pitch Perfect 3” and “The Emoji Movie.” Back in the ‘90s he wrote for “Dawson’s Creek.” But now he delivers this engrossing bit of class war that could easily be compared to “Parasite” or the films of Luis Bunuel. It’s a series based more on manners than plot, where tension builds out of the characters’ behaviors and desires. Everyone is seeking meaning and fulfillment through materialism, because what they have gives them purpose. When Shane realizes he and Rachel have been booked in the wrong suite, he initiates what will be a long-simmering war of wills with Armand (who doesn’t want to admit he did indeed book the wrong room). Rachel loves the luxurious room they have and Shane can only scoff that she hasn’t traveled much, so she wouldn’t know the difference. He also can’t fathom why she still wants to be a journalist. Of course it doesn’t help her confidence when Shane readily admits she might not be that good. “It’s a commentary on this upper class attitude and how those in the upper classes have such a sense of self-entitlement,” Lacy told Entertainment Voice when discussing his character, who he plays with quietly spoiled venom. Shane is truly unaware of when he’s insulting or mean. “Mike is such a wonderful writer and director that it was easy to understand the themes woven throughout the project. What really engaged me is how Shane doesn’t know how he is perceived and is yet consistently paranoid about how he is perceived (laughs). It’s a society obsessed with how it is seen by the world, but can be clueless about how they are actually seen.”

While a lot of recent TV has been influenced by the emergence of diversity and wokeness in our culture, White doesn’t spare his characters and satirizes their false progressiveness. The Mossbachers have arguments about proper terminologies, with Nicole in particular waving a banner for progress, but she’s cruel to Rachel when the former mentions she wrote an article about her, and Paula, who is Black, suspects Olivia keeps her around more as a prop than a real friend. Tanya has a romance with a man who mentions he works for a company named BLM, which she instantly concludes must mean Black Lives Matter (it doesn’t). An irony of the American ruling class is that it will quickly jump to support identity politics, as long as its economic comforts are not threatened. When it comes to Armand and his staff, they’re just worker ants as far as the guests are concerned. “As a young actor I worked in the hospitality industry,” Murray Bartlett told Entertainment Voice, “I have a lot of experiences to draw from when it comes to dealing with obnoxious people (laughs). A friend of mine still works in hospitality and posts conversations where people ask for crazy shit. It’s astounding. But when playing a character you are looking at an aspect of yourself that might be uncomfortable. We’re all human and all these characters in the show exist in us. It can be frightening. I hope the show does that. That it holds a mirror to us and we try to do better. Armand is like a casualty of this insane world that he’s in, and makes bad decisions himself.” 

The White Lotus resort is set-up in levels that function like a chart of the American class system. Up above are the guests with their quirks and concerns. Shane wants his perfect room, Olivia wants Paula to be loyal to her, even getting upset when she starts connecting with a handsome Hawaiian hotel worker, while down below Armand’s staff, like spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who watches in near horror as Armand’s emotional state begins to snap and he gets into a guest’s bag to down their drugs. Rachel might be inspired to join an NGO, but no one cares or even gives support. “I drew a lot on personal experience being a people-pleaser (laughs),” Alexandra Daddario told Entertainment Voice, “This idea of ‘it’s all fine!’ This couple, Rachel and Shane, are two people who did not have the right conversations before getting married. It’s like, the sex is good and they’re at the right age and can afford everything. I wanted to approach it as this woman whose anxiety is building until she can’t take it anymore. I’m certainly guilty of that. Mike is great to work with on this, because he’s so funny in a dry way where he’s so perceptive of how dark and funny the world is.”

Like a country on the verge of social explosion, “The White Lotus” builds up to several reckonings, some hilariously tragic, as when Armand starts taking risks to get revenge on Shane, or starts hitting on the younger male staffer he likes. Other characters find some semblance of peace, as if all one needs is to appreciate a beautiful sunset. White’s getaway is a lush snapshot of civilization in decline, with all of its humanity and dark edges. There is a boredom to privilege the show captures well, where you have enough not to worry, but it’s an illusion. Everyone suffers in their own way. The opening credits set the tone, with lush, illustrated jungle images that give away to decay. “It is social commentary on ignoring what the real problems are because you can,” said Daddario. “Hopefully people watch it and get a sense of how we need more empathy. We tend to mistreat people because we have no idea what it’s like to be them. Some people behave ridiculously.” 

The White Lotus” premieres July 11 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.