If you’re itching for a tropical vacation, “The White Lotus” might cool those jets. The latest product from the dark and twisty mind of Mike White (“Enlightened”) deals with class in a way few recent TV productions have, in an edgy, engrossing six-part HBO limited series that follows multiple stories in a kind of modern “Upstairs, Downstairs” fashion.
The simple set-up involves a boat of luxury travelers arriving at an exclusive Hawaiian resort, where the eager-to-please staff waits to greet them.
But “Fantasy Island” this isn’t; rather, the guests turn to be an especially high-maintenance bunch, in ways that challenge the hotel’s manager, Armond (“Looking’s” Murray Bartlett, a particular standout among a terrific cast), who counsels employees about creating “an overall impression of vagueness” and the need to treat the patrons “like sensitive children.”
The passengers that arrive by boat include a pair of newlyweds (Jake Lacy, Alexandra Daddario), with the wife gradually discovering that her husband might not be what she expected as he obsesses over having been denied the honeymoon suite; an insecure woman (Jennifer Coolidge) who has come to scatter her domineering mother’s ashes; and a family headed by Connie Britton and Steve Zahn, whose cynical, detached daughter (“Euphoria’s” Sydney Sweeney) has brought along a friend (Brittany O’Grady) who doesn’t share their values – or their elevated tax bracket.
“We’re just doing witchcraft,” the daughter, who constantly exhibits hostility toward her parents’ privilege, sneers as she seeks to deflect attention when the young women are caught smoking pot, contained in a backpack filled with drugs that becomes a significant plot point.
Despite the assertion that all the guests are “crazy,” the staff begins to interact with this batch in increasingly uncomfortable ways. Coolidge’s Tanya, for example, seeks to befriend spa manager Belinda (“Insecure’s” Natasha Rothwell), who is understandably reluctant to get too close but intrigued when Tanya floats the possibility of using her fortune to underwrite Belinda in a new business venture.
Armond, meanwhile, becomes so agitated over the newlywed’s relentless nagging – and throwing his family’s weight around – that he’s in danger of letting his carefully starched guard down, which also poses a test for his sobriety.
White wrote and directed all six episodes, and the series keeps introducing crises and points of friction between the servers and served in disarming ways – some of them, it should be noted, quite crude and explicit.
The show also luxuriates in the Hawaiian atmosphere – buoyed by an almost-hypnotic musical score – while never veering far from the power disparity between those staying at the resort and those tasked with fulfilling their requests, smiles plastered across their faces no matter how unreasonable the demands.
White uses a familiar device at the outset to create a sense of foreboding about what might happen and to whom. And while the finale doesn’t completely stick the landing, it’s hardly a disappointment either.
What really defines “The White Lotus” is the addictive way each story builds, exposing character quirks, doubts and secrets along the way.
“I just need somebody in my life to respect me,” Zahn’s character muses, well aware that his wife’s success is the main source of their generous vacation budget.
“The White Lotus” features the kind of people you’d be wise not to strike up a conversation with at a hotel pool. Yet if that’s not the ticket for a fun-in-the-sun romp, in terms of drawing the audience into its starkly divided world, it deserves respect and then some.
“The White Lotus” premieres July 11 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.