The Thing About 'The White Lotus'...
I loved the first season. This season? Well...
The first season of HBO’s The White Lotus seemed to effortlessly walk a tightrope between breeziness and darkness. Mike White’s series followed three groups of guests at a posh Hawaiian hotel, along with some of the hotel staff tasked to please and pamper them. We are informed at the beginning of the series that someone has died, and that was the enticing hook to keep viewers following along. Watching it while the pandemic had curtailed vacation travel seemed like an appropriate use of time. The characters were flawed enough to generate conflict, but (mostly) sympathetic enough to want their character arcs to end well.
The acting in season one was stellar. Jennifer Coolidge did amazing work toggling between comedy and pathos as Tonya, a narcissist trying to scatter her recently deceased mother’s ashes. Natasha Rothwell kept pace as Belinda, the massage therapist trying to cope with her whims. Alexandra Daddario was amazing as Rachel, a newlywed realizing that she has made a horrible mistake — and then compounds it by making an even bigger, sadder mistake. Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady were low-key amazing as Olivia and Paula, the Worst College Students Ever. The pool scene between the two of them and Daddario’s Rachel felt like a 21st-century adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. The interactions between the more entitled guests (like Tonya and Blinda, or Jake Lacy’s Shane and Murray Bartett’s Armond) felt like a demented hypercapitalist version of Downton Abbey.
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What I’m trying to say is that the first season was a lot of fun, the scenery was gorgeous, and the characters were engaging enough to draw you in. And I’m just not feeling the same way about Season Two.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. The opening credits, as per usual, are amazing. I’ve seen Theo James in a lot of stuff and he always seemed like the blandest side of beefcake imaginable — but good God he is having fun playing the most douchebro investment guy in the douchebro universe. His wife Daphne is played by Meghann Fahy, who has been a revelation. Coolidge is back for season two, joined by a plethora of other good actors: Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli, F. Murray Abraham, for example.
But to continue a theme of nitpicking at HBO shows that others seem to like more than I do, season two has left me colder on the overall project. I like seeing the super-affluent class skewered as much as the next affluent guy, but this go-around has been less compelling.
I think it’s due to a combination of two things. The first problem was occasionally present in season one as well, as when Molly Shannon showed up as Rachel’s mother-in-law from hell. But it has seemed more prominent during season two:
Sounds ridiculous? Like The White Lotus, any episode of The Love Boat features an underrated cast with three simple plots that may or may not intersect with each other. The characters have First World problems, stumbling and bumbling into doing and saying silly things, all under the bemused eye of the folks who run the place.
To be far, there are some differences between The Love Boat and The White Lotus. The latter features:
A serialized plot;
No laugh track;
More finely drawn characters; and
Hmm… so maybe it’s more like Fantasy Island come to think of it. But I’m not sure the prestige-y qualities overcome the threadbare plots.
As noted above, in the first season there was enough engaging characters to draw me into their fates. That is what a good drama should do! But now we arrive at the second problem with this second season:
Note that only Meghann Fahy’s character name is listed above. And I am legit invested in what happens to her, Mia (the quasi-hooker who sings really well, played by Beatrice Grannò) and maybe Ethan (Audrey Plaza’s husband, played by Will Sharpe).
The rest of them? Nah, not really — there’s a reason I can’t remember their character names. The entire grandfather/father/son plot is pretty boring. Jennifer Coolidge’s character seems broader this time around and I lost all sympathy for her assistant when she started whinging to her friend about how awful her life was… being stuck on the Sicilian coast. I know I’m supposed to sympathize with the hotel manager but she has treated her subordinates horribly. There is no character akin to Belinda, who grounded season one and put everyone’s problems in perspective.
This season seems to have a bit more suspense in the plot before the finale, and I’ll certainly watch to see how it ends. But I hope season three has more compelling characters (maybe Daphne and Rachel can team up) and more engaging conflicts. The White Lotus will always have gorgeous scenery — but it can be so much more.