Television

At once hilarious, savage and tragic, Mike White’s The White Lotus defies categorisation.

By Peter Craven.

The White Lotus review

Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Christie Volkmer and Lukas Gage in The White Lotus.
Credit: HBO

The first thing to be said about The White Lotus is that it confounds every expectation. We think for a long bewildering moment that we are watching some variant on the “Exotic Marigold Hotel” formula, those films with their soothing satisfactions and longueurs where a group of ageing Britishers – preferably with a dame or two in the cast – cope with whatever vicissitudes in some disorganised subcontinental haven.

The first clue to a more savage form of comedy is that a corpse is being loaded onto a plane. Some kind of whodunit seems set to cast its shadow.

The White Lotus is something else. A six-part television series set in a Hawaiian resort, it’s in no way conceived to conform to good clean fun of a temperate variety. This is satire but of a disturbing kind; Mike White’s script has a brilliance and depth that creates currents of unstable sympathy for his cashed-up but emotionally crippled characters. Part of its breadth is that it takes in intimations of climate change and a teetering economy.

None of which stops this wild, sometimes dark comedy from taking the formula of folks having fun in an earthly paradise and making merry hell out of it. Connie Britton – Mrs Coach in Friday Night Lights, the country star in TV’s Nashville – plays Nicole Mossbacher, chief executive of an unnamed search engine, married to the hapless Mark (Steve Zahn), who’s scared he may have testicular cancer. Their daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and her college girlfriend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady), squat together, oozing affectless sangfroid as one reads Nietzsche and the other reads Freud.

Generation Z is evoked with a breathtaking licence and lack of restraint. When a character is disconcerted to discover a parent was secretly gay, these college funsters speculate about how dear old dad might have been a “power bottom”. When a straight character speculates about what it’s like to be fucked up the arse, a hotel employee who has been getting stuck into the kids’ ketamine asks if his interlocutor would like to find out. The character hitting the drugs has fallen off the wagon, while the guy he’s talking to is contemplating the yawning gap in his family history and perhaps his own sexuality.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Coolidge – Stifler’s Mom in the American Pie films – plays Tanya, an ageing woman who lives for the glories of the day spa. She has brought with her the ashes of her dead mother, whom she is grieving with some degree of ambivalence and whose sifted remains she wants to scatter at sunset on Hawaiian waters.

She is a figure of considerable poignancy while also being utterly awful. In one of the major subplots, Tanya raises the hope of African–American masseuse Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) by suggesting that she set her up in business. And how the question of her mother’s ashes becomes entangled with the wrangles of a couple of newlyweds would be giving away too much of a plot that is consistently hair-raising and hilarious, but it’s also tied up with a central act of revenge.

There’s also the teenage son of Britton and Zahn who gets banished by the girls and becomes besotted with rowing in a boat with Hawaiian dudes. He’s a sympathetic figure and his epiphany with a whale is done with real beauty.

The White Lotus is written, directed and produced by White, who wrote School of Rock for Jack Black. The upshot is comedy–drama that defies categorisation because its dynamic range is so great. We’re moved and amused in equal measure and find ourselves comprehensively entertained while different effects are piled on top of each other. One minute black farce, then open hilarity, then an alienation effect or – just as disconcerting – an intimation of tragedy.

It is characterised by brilliant overheard dialogue that seems as contemporary as the smorgasbord of drugs characters snaffle like vultures. It’s laugh-aloud funny and as sophisticated in its flirtations with the unspeakable as it is simultaneously transgressive and jokey.

Of the honeymoon couple, the guy, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), is a hyper-entitled rich boy who is more interested in complaining about getting a less super-sumptuous room than his mother paid for than he is in the feelings of his beloved bride, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who’s from a poor family. Needless to say, he constantly swears to her his eternal lust and love like a comic strip version of a character from David Foster Wallace.

He looks like every young woman’s walking dreamboat (though he also creepily flirts with the girls) and Daddario is superb as she indicates her dawning insecurities, her desire to keep up her work. She’s encouraged in this by Nicole until the chief executive falls into grotesque self-parodying rage at what she takes to be a professional slight.

Presiding over this panoply of well-endowed Americans at play in this Polynesian paradise is the Australian manager of the resort, played by a revelatory Murray Bartlett. All the acting in The White Lotus is superb but Bartlett is the central figure, and he’s brilliant at maintaining a sparkling-eyed facade of eternal servitude and devotion while shifting into a bare, energised determination to follow the dictates of his own confusions as his courtliness is replaced by white-hot rage.

This is a masterful performance, constantly alert, canny and wholly convincing in the way it can drop into berserkness and a kind of driven passion as the servant of the rich becomes the avenger of all they ignore. It’s a deliberately folksy performance with its dutiful Aussie unflappable decorum, but Bartlett is marvellous at making the transition to the passions within. Power reverses – and the upshot is deadly.

Everything is a perfect parody of the spa that gives you whatever kink or kick you might desire. Girls in bored sensual embrace. A tongue going with unstoppable appetite to a bare bottom.

The White Lotus is presented with a pace that seems to simulate hectic frenzy but has a comic detachment that thrills and confounds. In an odd way it’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Jacobean contemporaries – the brilliance of the satirical typology, the ability to mingle poignancy with savage humour, and the audacity of the resolution. Think of Ben Jonson or The Revenger’s Tragedy.

The title of course suggests Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters”. And it’s in Bartlett’s voice, detached and without any fervour of emphasis, that we hear the verse quoted, in the matchless monotony of its music: “Hateful is the dark-blue sky, / Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea. / Death is the end of life; ah why / Should life all labour be?”

The white lotus is a symbol of brightness and beauty, never mind the slush and sludge of the pool below. Buddhists see it as an icon of hope and it became an improbable token of political rebellion in the late 1300s during China’s Yuan Dynasty. It was later taken up as an emblem by the founder of the Ming Dynasty.

All this was news to me, though no doubt not to Mike White, whose Buddhist affinities run deep.

It’s also true that in the final episode of The White Lotus what looks like an almost terminal satire of late capitalism suddenly feels the tumult of another dispensation. But no spoilers.

The White Lotus is now showing on Binge and Foxtel.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Final resort".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.