Like Georges Feydeau’s brilliant play A flea in her ear or, my personal favourite, Oscar Wilde’s The importance of being earnest, The White Lotus exudes the unmistakable aura of high-brow, self-aware social commentary. If you can look past the awkward yellow grading in some scenes—reminiscent of Mexico in Breaking Bad—this show has a je ne sais quoi from the get go. It has potential to be the definitive farcical comedy of our time.
HBO does The White Lotus a disservice by calling it ‘social satire’. What it really is is a farcical comedy. In its finest hour, between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the farce was to literature and performing arts what Shakespearean theatre was to the Victorians. It was a demanding genre that was easy to produce but hard to get right. In The White Lotus we have an almost masterful rendition of what the farce would look like in modern times.
The show starts off looking like a murder mystery and continues that way throughout most of the first episode—no doubt by design. But by the end of it, we are more invested in our colourful, over-the-top and filthy rich characters than in any sort of mystery. The only question is what comes next for each of them—our guests at the titular White Lotus resort and our curious employees too.
Let us start at the beginning: the title cards for The White Lots are a thing of beauty. They catch your eye and they hold you hostage. With every episode that passes I feel like I notice something in them that I had not noticed before. They were designed by Plains of Yonder, the same company that created the brilliant title sequence for Amazon’s ‘The Rings of Power’ televisions show; and the classy cards in The White Lotus are ‘a refreshing return to timelessness and simplicity in title design, where psychological depth and simple beauty eclipses [sic] modern digital firepower’ in the words of the studio themselves.
The other immediately noticeable element is Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s haunting music that—like the title cards and the production design of The White Lotus—takes a lot of inspiration from nature: it overlays recordings of flora and fauna atop backing vocals resembling native cries, themselves overlaid on the shivering articulations of the keyboard that make for a catchy rhythm that keeps lockstep with every turn of the screenplay. Yet, like the shots itself, it never oversteps its boundaries in terms of having an opinion, letting the listener make what they will of the music. It all works independently but comes together even better, which is what makes The White Lotus a show that is put together so well.
My only previous encounter with Mike White’s work was in School of Rock, and looking at that and his other collaborations, mostly with Jack Black, would hardly make one wonder if The White Lotus was his doing. However, in hindsight, the humorous undertones in this show are, like in his previous works, often deadpan but never inconspicuous; and the physicality of the comedy moves here from characters to situations. Might there have been telltale signs we missed all along? Regardless, The White Lotus has carved for itself a cozy niche in modern comedy, bringing back the farce while updating it for modern times.
The other big question is, is this just another show about ‘evil rich people’?
The White Lotus is a character study at its heart. It barely has a plot and much less a preachy ‘message’. I have never been of the opinion that stories must, in the end, offer some sort of takeaway message or moral. Stories are just what they are—stories. Like life, things just happen and in their happening lies their beauty, not in any message that is forced into their interpretation. This is my favourite characteristic of The White Lotus. It does not preach. It offers no message unless you interpret the entire show as some sort of statement against wealth and class. In the place of its missing plot is a bold study of characters and societies—their darknesses, their eccentricities, their vulnerabilities, their envy, their hopes, their disconnect from reality, and their morals or lack thereof—with none being spared.
The moments of hesitation in the script far outnumber its many moments of boldness as episode after episode unravels just a little bit more about characters, making you wonder why you continue to hold interest in uncovering the depths to which a person can sink. Are you for a character or against them? Or are we for them making complete fools of themselves? Do we like the chicanery our characters indulge in, or are we simply fascinated by what is possible by a person drowning in wealth and overburdened with first-world problems? But is it all just about being rich or is there something fundamentally flawed in our person after we get rich? These people are ‘like sensitive children,’ as one character points out. ‘They always say it’s about the money, but it’s not… They just need to feel seen.’ In some twisted way, these rich people are just like the rest of us.
The show is filled with poignant moments but its charm lies in its farcical take at every corner: ‘She’s my friend,’ says one of the guests at The White Lotus, ‘as long as she has more of everything than I do.’ She then proceeds to call the family whose guest she is, ‘crazy’. In response, the waiter admits that all guests are ‘crazy’—while speaking to that same guest. Or consider when another character seeks career advice from a vacationing CFO on whom she once wrote a profile: the CFO is surprisingly welcoming and kind enough to offer her advice but does not hold back on lashing out, just seconds later, when she finds out who wrote that horrible, rehashed profile on her.
In a voyeuristic manner, if you put up cameras all around a beach resort in an exotic location where rich people go on holiday, The White Lotus is what you would get—but with much less elegance, tact and comedic timing no doubt. This is a show that not only questions the characters in it but the viewer for enjoying those characters. And from an artistic perspective, this show, unbothered by nonsensical morals and takeaways, is exactly my kind of television. Think Twin Peaks but more tropical and without a murder mystery: there is nothing preachy to take away, just a chance to get lost in an incredible world and its incredible characters.
The twist at the end of The White Lotus, while not central to the wafer-thin plot, is unexpected nonetheless. More interesting is the fallout in everyone else’s life brought upon by the rich white guests. Again, the show is not preachy in this but gets the point across with nuance and subtlety. Jennifer Coolidge’s character, played with an aloof flair, appears to become self-aware momentarily when she speaks of how she must stop controlling the lives of people around her with her money. She pauses a beat before adding, ‘That’s not good for me.’ In a nutshell, this exchange carries all the nature of The White Lotus.
While this deals with Belinda the masseuse, who is black, some poorer white characters are not immune to the selfish charms of the rich either: the newlywed wife, played by Alexandra Daddario, briefly contemplates breaking off her marriage and going off on her own thanks to the sort of guy she married. Her decisions are not explained to the viewers—which is a great move—and we see her struggle with things but it is kept unclear whether she won over herself or gave in to her husband’s orbit. Leaving things to the imagination and interpretations of the viewer is the secret to the charm of The White Lotus and one I hope to see a lot more of in the second season—minus the yellow grading.