The White Lotus satirises the empty lives of a Hawaiian resort’s wealthy clientele

Mike White explores the clashes between serving staff and their spoilt guests in a series which undercuts the glamour of its holiday destination with lashings of claustrophobia.

The White Lotus (2021)

The White Lotus is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

“You have to treat these people like sensitive children. They want to be the special chosen baby child of the hotel.” General manager Armond’s brisk instructions to new recruit Lani (Jolene Purdy), as they welcome VIP guests to a week at a luxury island resort, are the first snarky shot fired across the class barrier. For The White Lotus, a smart six-part class-clash tragicomedy about trouble in a Hawaiian holiday paradise, is one long pop at privilege. Joining (b)eat the rich social satires like Parasite, Knives Out, or TV’s billionaire-baiting Succession, it sticks a subtle knife into the juicy, self-justifying rationalisations of the well-off, rather than the mega-wealthy – relatable people, “next-door-neighbour rich”, as writer-director Mike White observed slyly when interviewed. He’s been on a social justice streak in recent years, dissecting upper-middle-class envy in Brad’s Status (2017), and the unabashed Trump-era beastliness of a real-estate mogul in Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner (2017), which White scripted.

Here at the White Lotus, rather as in Parasite, many of the drama’s craftily explored frictions erupt when the needy rich rub up against staff forced to indulge their whims. Honeymooner and real-estate scion Shane (Jake Lacy nails his smiley, me-first preppiness), angered by being denied a suite marginally better than the one allotted, dives into covert feuding with Armond. Grieving moneyed fiftysomething Tanya, played by Jennifer Coolidge as a kaftan-wrapped bundle of hilariously woeful neediness, gloms on to kindly spa worker Belinda. Alongside them, Shane’s new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) slowly discovers the fierce hidden costs of ‘marrying up’, and the glossy but dysfunctional Mossbacher family grate against one another, trouble-making woke teens and preoccupied parents sniping round their suite and supper table. The wearyingly exploitative side of the hotel business is on show here, a wry and overdue corrective to the how-the-rich-live hotel porn of factual TV’s Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby, or the titillating celebrity excess of Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets.

Brittany O'Grady as Paula and Sydney Sweeney as Olivia in The White Lotus

There’s an ominous beat sounding under White’s social satire, however. In Big Little Lies-style, the story is a giant flashback, kicked off by the sight of a mystery coffin being loaded at the airport at the week’s end. Along with the darkness and decay that creep into the lush Hawaiian flora-and-fauna wallpaper of the credits, it’s a brisk memento mori, not a TV trope, adding a suspenseful chill to the plaited plots. Narratively, White takes his sweet time over the six episodes, deftly drawing drama out of the characters so that the gradual accretion of tensions, conflicts and poor choices makes for horribly plausible outcomes. He’s equally adroit at genre mixing, his plots sliding seamlessly from a comedy of manners, into tragicomedy or unexpected joyous poignancy. Stories ping gently off one another (it’s not a Grand Hotel-style confection of converging fates) as marriages flounder or flower, and health scares, hookups, drug binges and jealousies trigger everything from ‘radical honesty’ to violent robbery. Shot during Covid lockdown in a late 2020 cast-and-crew bubble at the Four Seasons in Maui, the show makes a virtue of necessity, its cheek-by-jowl scene-setting exploiting the location’s lavish but claustrophobic feel. Tribal flutes and drums thud menacingly under scenes, thriller-specialist Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s breathy soundtrack creeping in like sea-fog. Unease is omnipresent, never letting the viewer get entirely comfortable.

Democratic even down to its perspectives, the show shares its POV between guests and staff during the episodes, digging most fruitfully into Belinda’s willingness to swap wrap-around care for business finance, and Armond’s glorious unravelling, falling out of five years sobriety to battle with Shane. His portrayal by Murray Bartlett, slowly spiralling from fastidious fixer to feral, hard-partying lord of misrule, is one of the chief delights, along with Steve Zahn’s Mark Mossbacher, a recklessly candid beta-husband. Zahn’s perky, self-justifying honesty on behalf of the beleaguered rich sometimes gives the sense that White is editorialising. But when taken to squirm-inducing lengths, it also shows off White’s mastery of the uncomfortable moment (honed in Chuck and Buck, 2000, and HBO’s Enlightened, 2011–13), and his talent for extending scenes until laughs are infused with humiliation or dread. Such as the deliciously squirm-inducing sequence in which Tanya’s ocean scattering of her mother’s ashes descends into screaming solipsism. Howling “I miss my mother, even though she was a big jerk,” Tanya is the embodiment of Armond’s belief that his privileged guests are big rich babies (Shane even has his mother along on his honeymoon), whose moneyed exploitation ensures that their messes are always someone else’s problem.