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Review: ‘The White Lotus’ Is A Piercing Look At Privilege That Doesn’t Quite Achieve Prestige TV Status

By Suchin Mehrotra 20 August 2021

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“It’s hard for young, straight white men right now… nobody has any sympathy for them. In a way they’re the underdogs now,” says one of the many (almost) adorable obnoxious rich white characters who serve as the subject of HBO’s latest mini-series The White Lotus.

Written and directed by Mike White, the comedy-drama follows a week in the lives of a handful of filthy-rich guests at the White Lotus luxury resort in Hawaii. Wrapped in a delectably pulpy Bigg Boss-esque guilty-pleasure watch about a bunch of absurdly wealthy human cartoons behaving badly, the series offers a biting dissection of white privilege. Like Big Little Lies, this show also uses the device of opening with the flash forward death (murder?) of an unknown character to hook us into the proceedings. 

Among the new guests at the resort are Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel Patton (Alexandra Daddario), a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon. Rachel doesn’t come from money and is still learning how to be rich from entitled mama’s boy Shane, who embodies the answer to the question—what if golf was a person? Then there’s the Mossbachers, with self-made millionaire and tech CEO Nicole (Connie Briton) and her second fiddle husband Mark (Steve Zahn), who seems to have a different existential crisis every day of the week. With them is their son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), college-going daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) who’s tagged along for the trip (pun intended, considering the pair’s penchant for popping pills).   

Rounding off the pack (side note: is there a specific collective term for a group of self-important white people? A podcast? A podcast of white people?) is the wonderfully whiny and fragile-to-a-fault Tanya (the inimitable and perfectly cast Jennifer Coolidge). Tanya’s here to spread her recently deceased mother’s ashes. We know this because she tells everyone she meets every chance she gets. More than well-etched characters, these are people that feel frighteningly familiar. We’ve seen them, been around them, are perhaps related to them, or on some level, we are them. 

Here to keep these new guests permanently pampered is the hotel staff lead by resort manager Armond (a wonderfully animated Murray Bartlett, the show’s breakout star), and spa director Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who give us a look into the backbreaking work that goes into delivering the luxury. As Armond tells new trainee Lani, at this level of net worth the guests are like spoiled, sensitive children. “They want to feel seen… they want to be the special chosen baby child of the hotel,” he says, adding that the staff are nothing more than “pleasant interchangeable helpers.” 

The show’s discussion of privilege shines brightest when it highlights the victims of the system.

Among its many achievements, Mike White’s show strikes a chord in how it perceptively picks apart privilege and whiteness by brilliantly mining sheer absurdity of these people and how they function. It also helps that it’s a breezy 6-episode watch that’s no longer than it needs to be. Not to mention its deliciously funny, yet sinister tone. The show’s approach to its affluent subjects lies somewhere between feeling like you’re watching a reality show and a nature documentary. You can almost imagine the Discovery Channel-style voiceover: “here we see the rich white male in its natural breakfast buffet habitat as he obsesses over why he didn’t get the room of his choice, waiting for the right time to call his mother and pounce on his prey complain.”

The White Lotus is never not entertaining but it also feels like it’s only skimmed the surface in its observations of our oligarchic overlords. White wrote the show himself, and it’s hard not to wonder what a more diverse writing room could have brought to the table in exploring different, more specific shades of whiteness and privilege. The show also works far better when it focuses on character over plot. It seems to promise escalating levels of insanity in each subsequent episode but doesn’t quite deliver. As if it’s gradually building up to something big that never really materialises—perfectly captured by the events of the somewhat anticlimactic finale. But maybe that’s the point. That in the end nothing changes and there are no real consequences for those at the top of the pecking order.

The show’s discussion of privilege shines brightest when it highlights the victims of the system. Newlywed Rachel serves as our eyes and ears into this world as she navigates her newfound richness and the expectations of being an ornamental trophy wife. She’s repeatedly told by her nightmarish mother-in-law that she just has to “keep him happy,” with an almost threatening smile. It doesn’t help that her new husband Shane, who has the empathetic range of a paper-cut, treats her as little more than a commodity. A friend of mine quite perfectly described him as “a manifestation of all my nightmares in one man.”

But where the show is most affecting is through the stories of the hotel staff. There’s poor spa manager Belinda who gets sucked into the manipulative hands of a needy Tanya, who suggests she might invest in Belinda’s own wellness spa. Tanya constantly dangles this carrot to keep Belinda on the hook, and then makes her jump through one heart-breaking hoop after another.  

She’s not the only one. In the first episode we’re immediately invested in pregnant trainee Lani who goes into labour, but we never see her again. We similarly feel for Kai, the sincere staff member whose life gets destroyed as a result of Paula’s warped guilt, but again, we never see him again. The unimportant are removed and replaced. Despite the hellish events of the last week, one of the last shots of the series mirrors one of the first, as we see the staff once again putting on a brave face and waving as a new batch of guests approach. They have no choice in the matter. Because they don’t matter. They’re little more than faceless, replaceable interchangeable helpers. The status quo remains. 

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