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The White Lotus review: This nightmarish vision of paradise is the comedy of the year

Writer-creator Mike White turns a luxury Hawaiian hotel into a microcosm of America, with a full suite of anxieties, neuroses and peccadilloes on display

Ed Cumming
Monday 16 August 2021 18:34 BST
Trailer for The White Lotus
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How many comedies begin with a coffin being loaded onto a plane? Yet that’s exactly how The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic) greets us. It’s the first sign that HBO’s gloriously spiky comedy has no time for simple characterisations. In the cold open, Shane (Jake Lacy) is at the airport after a week at the luxurious White Lotus hotel in Hawaii. He’s clearly had a hell of a time of it, although not as bad as whoever’s in the box with “HUMAN REMAINS” emblazoned on the side. Whatever’s happened here, it can’t be good.

A week earlier, Australian manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), in a brick-red suit, is waiting for a new batch of guests to arrive at the resort. “The goal is to create for the guests an overall impression of vagueness,” he says to his heavily pregnant new colleague Lani (Jolene Purdy). “They get everything they want but they don’t even know what they want or what day it is or where they are or who we are or what the f**k is going on.”

Tone duly set, the first episode introduces us to the gang, an ensemble to rival any. There’s the Mossbacher family, ruled by the tech boss Nicole (Connie Britton), all glossy Silicon Valley competence. Her emasculated husband Mark (Steve Zahn) is literally worried about his balls, and given to morbid chats. Their son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) spends all day on his screens. Daughter Olivia (magnificently deadpan Sydney Sweeney) has brought along a friend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady), with whom she discusses Hillary Clinton’s neo-con policies over fancy dinner. Shane is on honeymoon with his new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario). He’s a polo-shirted idiot bro fixated on the plunge pool he was hoping for. She’s a journalist, slowly twigging that she might have made a huge mistake marrying this goon. Most enigmatic is Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, unloading her many problems on the massage table to therapist Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who becomes a confidante. Perhaps there can be something in it for both of them, if Belinda plays her cards right.

A dead body is usually the prelude to a mystery; here, like the uneasy score, it serves to underpin the satire. At The White Lotus, actions have consequences. Writer-creator Mike White turns his hotel into a microcosm of America, with a full suite of anxieties, neuroses and peccadilloes on display. These guests might not know what they want, but worrying about what they want is already an extreme privilege. The contrast between staff and guests yields endless material: entitlement, vanity, sex, substance abuse and obliviousness on one side; drudgery, forbearance and oppressive corporate management on the other.

It’s a tribute to the brilliant ensemble cast, and the script, that The White Lotus never relaxes into easy stereotypes. Even the worst monsters have vulnerabilities, but the downtrodden service staff aren’t blameless. Extreme wealth can become a prison for the selfish, but it’s more comfortable than poverty. Even in this nightmarish vision of paradise, there are plenty of human remains, and this sharp, funny series, quite possibly the comedy of the year so far, is all the richer for it.

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