‘The White Lotus’ Season 2 Checks Into Sicily With Sexual Tension and Scorching Satire
Human folly and quirks are inescapable, no matter what part of the world you find yourself in. We learn that lesson again in the second season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” which instantly proves to be a worthy follow-up to its excellent predecessor. The first season was a brilliant collage made up of privileged Americans vacationing in Hawaii while masking their depraved little impulses, jealousies and personal frustrations. It was gloriously funny and one of the best recent satires about the middle and higher classes. The show also won 10 Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series, so it’s no surprise that creator Mike White would see the logic in bringing the series back for a new trip. White also returns to the director’s chair and displays the same meticulous attention to character and detail, while not repeating himself.
This time the new crop of guests arrive in Sicily’s branch of the White Lotus hotel chain, again with their own aims and motivations. The only returning characters from last season are Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge reprising her Emmy-winning role) and her new husband, Greg (Jon Gries), who she met in Hawaii. Tagging along by force is Tanya’s assistant, the adequately-named Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), one of those young people at the border between millennials and Gen-Z who is frustrated with everything about her life. Also arriving is an Italian-American trio, Albie (Adam DiMarco), who is joining his wealthy actor dad, Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and grandfather, Bert (F. Murray Abraham), with the aim of tracing their family lineage. Dominic’s marriage is on the rocks because of his ongoing infidelities, which he blames on sex addiction. The final round of guests is two couples. Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) claim never to fight and are not ashamed of admitting they’re rich. Cameron’s former college roommate, Ethan (Will Sharpe) is newly rich after selling his tech company and is married to the high-browed Harper (Aubrey Plaza), who judges Cameron and Daphne for being so comfortably aloof and privileged.
As with the first season, White first introduces these characters on the surface and we think we know what they’re all about. Then the layers begin to unspool in tragicomic ways. Although it must be said that this season of “The White Lotus” is not as outright funny as the first, delving instead into darker, sexually edgier territory. Having gutted the overall nature of the American ruling class, White now focuses on more microcosmic aspects of human nature, while still jabbing at a culture where everyone goes to college and “wokeness” mingles with social superiority. In some ways the writing is about current mindsets clashing with our flawed natures. Harper looks down at Cameron and Daphne for not reading, ignoring the news and showing off their bliss. Yet Ethan can’t find sexual gratification outside of masturbating to porn alone after a run. Harper is almost gleeful to learn that Cameron, who acts and talks like a total bro, is a cheater when Daphne opens up during an outing. The morbid fascination only lasts until Harper begins having doubts about her own marriage’s stability in the fidelity department. Then there’s Albie, who annoys his elders with talk about gender constructs and how “The Godfather” feeds male power fantasies. But when he meets Portia and clearly likes her, he bemoans how girls don’t seem to like nice guys and vulnerably keeps wondering if he should “be more aggressive” when she’s clearly bored.
Like witnesses to all these personalities, and then channels for even more of their behavior, are the Italian locals. Lucia (Simona Tabasco) is a local sex worker who frequents the White Lotus hotel where everyone is staying, bringing along her more innocent friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò). They always need to maneuver around the strict hotel manager, Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), who like Murray Bartlett’s great character last season, holds in her frustrations at being the virtual gatekeeper for a bunch of snobs. Sexual tension is like an embodiment for everyone’s true, inner selves. Lucia first becomes irresistible to Dominic, who looks like he’s walking through a personal purgatory when he meets with the attractive young Italian. Eventually she will also cross paths with Cameron and Ethan before meeting Albie, who isn’t the sort of guy a stereotype TV prostitute would have a soft spot for. It makes sense, however, because in his modern, sensitive ways, Albie is different from the men Lucia is accustomed to dealing with. Lucia is also written without overstating her role. She’s a young woman who would like to have just a little more money and a few more things. Offering herself to wealthy tourists is simply the only opportunity she sees at the moment. In one of the season’s darkly funny twists, Mia is the one who quickly discovers the benefits of transactional sex and revels in this new gig.
Some aspects of “The White Lotus” second season are a bit underdeveloped when compared to its predecessor. Jennifer Coolidge is again very funny at being aloof, but she feels included simply because her character was so popular the first time around. She begs Greg to ride a scooter with her to imitate Monica Vitti. Her marriage later takes some heartbreaking turns but her only true connecting thread to the rest of the narrative is Portia. It could also be that we need Coolidge as the real comic relief, since so much of the other characters’ stories enter realms of despair and psychological pain. At dinner Dominic has to calmly smack down Bert’s alpha male boasting, attempting to open his eyes to how terrible a husband and father he actually was. Harper, Ethan, Cameron and Daphne are living their own deceptive marriages. Harper and Ethan genuinely want to pretend everything is fine, while Cameron and Daphne accept infidelity as a fact but simply act as if it isn’t there (Daphne tells Harper she should look into getting a personal trainer for purposes other than just exercise). Where the writing shines is at how it hints at what bubbles beneath the surface, like Cameron and Ethan’s unbalanced tensions. Cameron likes to act like a jolly life of the party, while Ethan reminds him he was actually a jerk in college who would sleep with every girl he liked. Of course Cameron also starts trying to get Ethan to accept an investment pitch.
“The White Lotus” remains smart, biting commentary and an addictive comedy of manners. It takes satire to really get to the bone of who we are as societies. White may not surpass his great first season, but this one is still a fantastic trip to take with characters we grow to know and even care about. They are wonderfully flawed, dishonest and at times, endearing. In other words, they could be a large chunk of the audience that will be tuning in. By avoiding being a totally mean-spirited takedown of privilege, it manages to profile people, pure and simple. Money has a way of making it easier for us to mask the blemishes on our profiles. But they are there, waiting to surface. In a way a show like “The White Lotus” is almost a form of cultural therapy. It asks us to look straight at these details of what it is to walk around the modern bubble of privilege, before popping it with skilled gusto.
“The White Lotus” season two premieres Oct. 30 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.