Privilege and dysfunction are everywhere in television, with a heightened awareness of class divisions fueling writers’ to skewer the ultra-rich in intriguing new ways. Satire, one of the most difficult and slippery genres, is the undercurrent behind these shows. From Succession to Schitt’s Creek, the upper-class are everywhere on television. Populated by characters most would often consider reprehensible, these shows manage to humanize the figures behind headlines, without sacrificing any pointed criticism. And with the wealthy only getting wealthier, as well as increasing in media visibility, the rich will remain on television screens for years to come with only more relevancy. HBO’s new satirical miniseries, The White Lotus, is another installment in this class-focused thematic trend.
Created by writer/actor Mike White, showrunner of the criminally underseen Enlightened, The White Lotus sees White turning his sharp writing to the stark class differences that divide a Hawaiian resort. A writer possessing the skill of weaving dark themes with sharp comedy, White is a perfect fit for this subject matter. However, the premiere, titled “Arrivals,” is underwhelming.
The plot kicks off with a baffling cold-open, utilizing a trite in media res opening to drop into the dark world of The White Lotus. One week after the events of the miniseries, a resident at the titular resort lies dead. We meet trust-fund baby Shane (Jake Lacy), who is clearly haunted by the death. This opening sequence feels exceedingly dull, a cheap ploy to prompt speculation from viewers about who will die by the end of the series. The obvious victim appears to be Shane’s new bride, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who is mysteriously absent from Shane’s side. This murder-mystery open is bizarre and tonally clunky, a tedious addition to an episode that feels separate from its own opening moments.
Following the disappointing opening, White introduces The White Lotus’ cast of wealthy and dysfunctional characters. The aforementioned newlyweds Shane and Rachel appear happy, but mask a disconnect within their relationship. A marriage built on the basis of upward mobility, the two are strangers to each other, and Shane can’t help but feel unimportant to the world, a bitter and dissatisfied man. Another couple staying at the resort, Mark (Steve Zahn) and Nicole (Connie Britton) find themselves dealing with the issues that come with middle-aged life. Equally unhappy in their lives, Mark anxiously waits for urgent medical test results from the mainland, while Nicole ignores her husband’s anxieties entirely.
Finally, we meet the show’s most inscrutable character, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge). Lacking any sort of awareness of the outside world, Tanya finds herself attached to others in absurdly toxic ways. Following a scalp massage, for example, Tanya fixates on spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), savoring the attention she gives Tanya. Situations like these provide The White Lotus with a welcome opportunity for uncomfortable comedy, but White seems to squander these opportunities, instead favoring a consistent middle-of-the-road tone that fails to leave any kind of impression, fumbling any attempt at comedy or drama.
The only truly successful aspect of “Arrivals” comes with the introduction of the titular resort’s staff. Led by the shifty resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), the staff are immediately more intriguing than those they cater to. We meet Armond as he leads a first-day trainee (Jolene Purdy) through the motions of greeting guests to the resort. His characterization of the guests as over-privileged children contextualize the care Armond and his staff put into caring for the guests. This infantilization of the guests also provides the show with a much-needed comedic backbone, placing Armond in a Basil Fawlty-like role, a keeper of order in a disordered resort, a manager increasingly frustrated by his guests. Watching Armond cater to these rotten guests, as well as manipulating and playing them off of each other, is certainly the highlight of The White Lotus so far.
A messy and chaotic affair, the premiere is intriguing, but fails to provide a reason for the viewer to care for any of White’s parade of paper-thin characters. While White does manage to develop a show with a unique tone that is separate from his other works, The White Lotus, at least so far, lacks White’s trademark humanism and pathos. While it is unfair to compare The White Lotus to Enlightened, “Arrivals” makes one wish for the complex humanity and emotion that fueled White’s last HBO show. Whereas Enlightened was sharp and bold, The White Lotus is uneven and unsure, both narratively and visually murky. White’s show is an endeavor lacking confidence, defined by a refusal to commit to any kind of strong aesthetic or tone.
While privilege and dysfunction are the subjects behind some of the best television today, a parade of awful, over-privileged people mean nothing without a sharp point or a generous dose of humanity. Without either of these, The White Lotus feels tiresome, making stale points about class that can be found on more consistently engaging shows.
The White Lotus airs on Sundays 9:00 p.m. EST on HBO and also on HBOMax.