state of the arts

Power, privilege and pina coladas: The White Lotus is the show of the summer

The genius of this new Hawaiian-set series doesn’t just lie in its complicated characters (who are, overwhelmingly, awful people) but in its powerful exploration of wealth and whiteness, writes Micha Frazer-Carroll

Friday 13 August 2021 11:15 BST
Stranger than paradise: Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacey as newlyweds Rachel and Shane Patton in ‘The White Lotus’
Stranger than paradise: Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacey as newlyweds Rachel and Shane Patton in ‘The White Lotus’ (Sky Atlantic)
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Someone dies in Sky Atlantic’s new show, The White Lotus. That’s not a spoiler – we see a body bag being loaded onto an aeroplane in the first five minutes of the show. But the six-episode series, which is set on a Hawaiian holiday resort and was written and directed by School of Rock’s Mike White, isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a comedic and darkly intense exploration of privilege, wealth, and existential anxiety. It’s also one of the best shows you’ll see this year.

The story opens with a pissed-off Jake Lacy, who frequently plays a sort of token privileged white guy working through some things (see High Fidelity, Girls, Ramy). Here is no different – he’s a loathsome bro named Shane who boasts of his inherited wealth, and still wears his college merch as everyday wear. In the show’s first episode, he becomes determined to ruin his Hawaii honeymoon by warring with hotel management. His grievance? They’ve checked him into the wrong room. His mummy, who arranged the honeymoon after hearing the titular hotel was the “most romantic” on the island, ordered the Pineapple Suite, not the Palm Suite.

Over the course of one week, every character in the show develops a tense micro-plotline like this – which might seem trivial at first, but tells you everything you need to know about their deeper neuroses. Shane’s new wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), is a freelance journalist having a career crisis in light of having married rich. But she seems equally anxious and thrown by the smaller quibbles, too, like when two teenage girls who are brought along on a family holiday (Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady) throw her judgy looks by the pool. Then there’s the grieving and overbearing Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), who clings to pretty much the first person she meets at the hotel; hotel manager Armand (Murray Bartlett), a recovering alcoholic who seems way too ready to spite Shane in the battle of the Pineapple Suite; and dad-of-two Mark (Steve Zahn), who can’t stop obsessively checking his balls for cancer (“my testicles are swollen!” he insists). Why is everyone so wound up? I thought this was a show about a holiday?

The show’s genius doesn’t just lie in the care and attention paid to fleshing out complicated characters (who are, overwhelmingly, awful people), but in its powerful exploration of wealth and whiteness. The natural beauty of the story’s postcard-perfect setting never fully eclipses the power relations that exist between white tourists and Hawaii natives; the island’s violent colonial history is always lurking in the background. Conversations about privilege rear their heads again and again over dinner or on the beach – often led by the younger characters. O’Grady’s Gen-Z character, Paula, who’s been brought on the holiday by her college friend Olivia (Sweeney), embodies this generational and racial divide, pointing out that having to watch Hawaiians dance for holidaying white people is deeply depressing. Olivia’s boomer girlboss mom (Connie Britton) hates all this discourse: “Nobody has any sympathy for [straight white men] right now”. Olivia’s quick response sums up my feelings in a nutshell: “Mom, cringe.”

The inclusion of hotel workers in the cast – Armond, hotel spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and new starter Lani (Jolene Purdy) – means that class warfare is a central part of the show. With his Cheshire-cat smile and sing-song Australian accent, Armond details the emotional labour of the job to Lani: “You don’t want to be too specific, as a presence, as an identity. You want to be more generic.” This induction commentary is a useful behind-the-curtain device for the audience, and in the meantime, the creators pull no punches in telling us that the wealthy, white guests are the baddies in the story. Armond explains: “You have to treat these people like sensitive children. They just need to feel seen. They want to be the only child, the special chosen baby child of the hotel.”

Lines like this, as well as the complex tensions that exist between virtually every single combination of characters in the show, ultimately make the story feel incredibly multi-layered. You become acutely aware of the various masks people are wearing for each other, while having to keep track of who knows what about who, and who’s mad at who. As the haunting flute on Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s score wails beneath the drama, and the camera dips into the ocean’s murky depths in scene transitions, you can’t help but think about how this is all going to culminate in something darkly fatal. And yet the murderous element of the plot never feels gimmicky – even without it, every scene would feel like edge-of-seat viewing.

This show is so good that it’s easy to forget that it was made during the pandemic. White brought the cast out to Hawaii in an attempt to circumvent the creative limits of lockdown filming – and while we shouldn’t overlook the hypocrisy of flying wealthy white Hollywood mainlanders to an island to film during a deadly pandemic (hello, this is a show about privilege and exploitation!), he successfully transforms the singular setting of the hotel into a microcosm for colonial capitalism. As a result of this expansiveness, the show stands as a riveting piece of television, even without considering the extenuating circumstances brought about by Covid.

A day at the beach: Fred Hechinger and Steve Zahn as Quinn and Mark Mossbacher in ‘The White Lotus’ (Sky Atlantic)

The White Lotus is the show of the summer, and not just because much of the action takes place next to luscious white beaches and glimmering turquoise pools. It’s got the politicised teenage apathy that the Gossip Girl reboot wishes it had, the upstairs-downstairs feel of Below Deck, the bitingly satirical class analysis that last year’s Sofia Coppola film On the Rocks couldn’t quite access, and it achieves the delicious claustrophobia that Malcolm & Marie was going for – without actually making the audience want to press the ejector-seat button. So sure, come for the murder mystery, but expect to get swept up in what can only be described as the least relaxing holiday of your life.

‘The White Lotus’ begins on Sky Atlantic on Monday 16 August at 9pm

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