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‘The White Lotus’ gives tropical paradise the ‘Black Mirror’ treatment

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 22, 2021 6:00 am

Aching to get back to a beach resort? HBO’s The White Lotus might change your mind.

Like a version of Fantasy Island plunged through a Black Mirror episode, the six-part series (which wrapped up last week) shows us that for one-percenters, hell can be a getaway of their own making.

Take a bunch of entitled white folks, drop them by private boat on a serene tropical island in a spot where socioeconomic divisions are cringingly obvious, and watch them flounder around — that’s creator Mike White’s idea of fun, and The White Lotus makes it mostly delicious to watch.

The location is a spa paradise in Hawaii (actually shot at the Four Seasons in Maui) where the staff are attentive, helpful, and sometimes on the verge of mayhem. 

We meet Armond (Australian Murray Bartlett), manager of The White Lotus — a mustachioed, perpetually grinning, twisted version of Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke, explaining to young trainee Lani (Jolene Purdy) their function for VIP guests: “It’s our job to disappear behind our masks of pleasantness. It’s… tropical kabuki. The goal is to create an overall impression of vagueness that can be very satisfying, where they get everything they want, but they don’t even know what they want.”

Mike White is known for unnerving social satire. Before writing the kid-friendly School of Rock, he made the indie Chuck and Buck about a lethal stanner; as well as Enlightenment with Laura Dern for HBO.

This almost surreal level of serenity and pampering (which David Foster Wallace captured so well in his 1999 essay on the cruise ship experience, “Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All”) appeals to guests that include the Mossbachers, a dysfunctional family made up of midlife crisis-facing Steve Zahn, search engine mogul mom Connie Britton, their snarky daughter Sydney Sweeney (and her token mixed-race friend, Brittany O’Grady), their space cadet son (Fred Hechinger); and Jennifer Coolidge as a neurotic, well-off older woman whose mother has recently died.

She develops a proprietary relationship with African-American spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rodwell), who, after giving Coolidge an out-of-body massage experience, is lavished with the kind of praise only an entitled white person can bestow: “We should open a spa together! I know a lot of rich, ***ked-up white people. They could really use you!”

 Aloha: Murray Bartlett and Jolene Purdy welcome arrivals in HBO’s The White Lotus. Photo from HBO

Armond is already on edge, we can tell. Five years sober, he’s struggling to keep the kabuki mask up. But the guest who triggers Armond’s inner anti-Roarke rage is Shane (Jake Lacy, who strikes one as a bizarre mash-up of young Ben Affleck and young Matt Damon), a smug, demanding real estate agent who’s on his honeymoon with Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a fledgling journalist who is not sure she wants to simply be Shane’s arm candy for the rest of her life.

Shane is miffed that the resort didn’t book them the high-end Pineapple Suite that his mother paid for, and goes on the warpath. Armond, in his passive-aggressive way, tries to make Shane’s vacation stay a living hell.

Mike White is known for unnerving social satire. Before writing the kid-friendly School of Rock, he made the indie Chuck and Buck about a lethal stanner; as well as Enlightenment with Laura Dern for HBO. Here, he writes and directs his first season with an immersive hand: we see all the amenities in vivid, color-saturated detail. Makes you miss the beaches (if not all the people you’re forced to mingle with).

 Newlyweds Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy meet up with “Mom” Molly Shannon.  Photo from HBO

At first, it seems The White Lotus will take a heavy hand in depicting the huge socioeconomic gap between islanders and white guests; but for the most part, the show prefers to needle the latter lightly, if relentlessly — their anxieties, their “First World problems,” their sense of entitlement, and the curious teen kabuki of Gen-Z (with its ASMR and its prescription drugs helping them through) — while reserving its sympathies for the native population and minorities in general. Whether or not it’s all that cut and dried for those in the “service industry,” in Hawaii or elsewhere, is possibly worth a closer look in future seasons.

(Side note: There is reference made to Shane’s mom’s tenacious travel agent, described as a “gay Filipino beast” when it comes to handling client concerns. But here, it seems like a compliment.)

If there’s a moral center to the surrounding hell set in paradise, it’s probably Quinn (Hechinger), the Mossbacher teen son who’s trapped between an overly controlling mother, a father determined to “bro out” with him, and a sister who wants to exile him to a cot in the snacks pantry for the duration of their stay. Of course, he becomes the show’s soul, hearing echoes of his possible future(s) in the Hōkūleʻa boat crew who keep showing up on the beach, preparing to paddle to Fiji.

 Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady take in some poolside snark. Photo from HBO

It’s no coincidence that show creator White sets his series on a remote island and references Fiji, having himself been a willing contestant on the reality shows Survivor and Amazing Race filmed there in the past. (Hey, you have to get your material on human existential misery somewhere!)

An HBO veteran, White assembles a solid cast of faces from other HBO series, such as Bartlett (Looking), Daddario (True Detective Season 1) and Sweeney (Euphoria). Oddly, he tells that the character he related to the most while writing the show was Armond (something about his “having to dance for The Man” in Hollywood).

And he directs deftly, obeying the dramatic constraints of the limited-series arc, which include — to paraphrase Chekhov — “If there’s a fruit knife lying around, someone’s going to use it.”

The show does open on a mystery involving a body, so it’s worth winding through the chain of events that leads this ensemble to a final, if not happy ending, one that feels at least plausible. And we also hear that HBO has confirmed a second season for this anthology series, set in a different White Lotus property somewhere else in the world. After all, “Aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye.”

The White Lotus airs on HBO.

Photo by Mario Perez/HBO