Filmed in a quarantine bubble at a Hawaiian resort last year The White Lotus — which is Mike White’s first new show since the brilliance of Enlightened disappeared far too soon under the waves alongside that great big turtle of Amy Jellicoe’s in 2013 — has, even with its enormous cast, an aura of claustrophobia about it. The resort, cloistered unto itself as these rich people places always are, feels like an island floating inside an island — the presence of the waters pushing in at all sides is omnipresent and exhausting. Everybody’s come to this place for rest and relaxation but like all Mike White characters they brought sixteen suitcases of their own blasted baggage along with them.
Seasickness abounds on even firm land — Ben Kutchins’s camera weaves and careens among his cast of oversized characters all while Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s panic-inducing beaut of a score pushes the air out of our lungs, the sonic equivalent of CPR on a drowning victim. When people start puking it’s with an air of inevitability, but White is there to hold back our hair — I know I make it sound emotionally taxing but The White Lotus is the funniest most observant and wise television comedy since, well, since Enlightened dammit. Mike White is always for always, a perfect 10.
Plot, such as it goes, is not the series’ driving force – like Gilligan and the Millionaire’s Wife a group of people have descended upon this place for their varying reasons, vacations and isolated freak-outs in short order — but a wrap-around story involving a box stamped “Human Remains” does make us vaguely aware that an aura of violence is nipping at these six hour-long episodes’ edges. But it’s not hard to see why smart actors flock to White like gulls to a five-star garbage can, plot be damned — he has a pristine instinct about the (to borrow one character’s terminology) core of the onion; about what makes these actors he’s chosen to turn his camera on so fascinating to us, underneath the skin.
So their gifts, but all the facets — you take somebody like Jennifer Coolidge, here playing a self-described “alcoholic lunatic” who’s mourning her dead mother with all of the emotions at all of the times. We’ve seen Jennifer Coolidge play an alcoholic lunatic before — it’s kinda her thing. But in White’s hands it’s poetry, the Platonic crystallization of this actress — what we love about her and in ways we didn’t even realize.
Same goes for every person in The White Lotus’ stellar cast. Most especially White taps straight into heart of the goofy sad charisma of Murray Bartlett, previously so great on Looking — here he’s playing the resort’s manager, whose juggling of the rich clientele’s clueless egocentric eccentricities becomes more like manic plate-spinning by the minute. Bartlett’s spiraling feud with his number one nemesis, a casually cruel baby-man on his honeymoon played by usual-nice-guy Jake Lacy, is the dark heart of the series, riffing on notions of privilege and class and sexuality without ever seeming to strain. Other performance highlights include an alpha Connie Britton folding laundry to calm her nerves while Steve Zahn’s beta husband cradles his literally and metaphorically damaged testicles; and then there’s their kids, played with varying degrees of zoned-out Zoomer affect by Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger. Oh and White’s secret agent of chaos Molly Shannon swoops in to laser the entire place down for a few caustic moments.
Time and again White hands his actors roles like diamonds, gleaming every color of the spectrum in the sun twinkling off the sea, and makes the most of them and their every moment. Watching a Mike White project is just an avalanche of emotional revelations — funny, sad, so bracingly honest you have to wipe the sheen of sweat off your forehead every ten minutes. I just don’t think he is capable, when given free rein like this, of delivering unto us anything that feels false or phony or not thought out to a hundred steps ahead of us. The White Lotus is a cascade of such truths from a dozen different perspectives, all coming together in a symphony of heartfelt and hysterically funny scenes, each one informing the next one informing the last.
And there’s such kindness and empathy amid his incisions now — he might see these characters down to their bones but his love and adoration for their every dastardly foible is intoxicating. No villain is a villain, no hero is a hero, everybody’s a bumbling maniac, an alcoholic lunatic in their own ways. The generosity with which he watches these folks he’s loosed upon us, in this little island on an island in the middle of a glittering sea astride the somewhere-out-there specter of an invisible pandemic, it’s what art exists for. We see ourselves, we see others, reflected and magnified upon these cerulean shivers. What a gift.
The White Lotus begins streaming on HBO Max July 11.
Photo: Mario Perez/HBO