Comedic, dramatic, mysterious and dark… they’re just some of the words you could use to describe The White Lotus, but by far the most fitting is “bizarre”. Set in a tropical resort, this series follows the exploits of various rich guests and employees over the span of a week. Despite their intentions for a nice, relaxing stay, they all soon find out that paradise is hard work.
The pilot kicks off with a flash-forward where we learn that someone in the past week died at the White Lotus Hotel. Who died? That’s part of the mystery… or is it? Much like the death of Laura Palmer in the opening scene of Twin Peaks – the mystery at hand isn’t the core focus of the series. It’s certainly the most prominent detail lingering in the back of every viewer’s mind, but it’s something that’s rarely addressed or hinted at with any urgency. Sure, there’s been a death at the hotel, but that’s not even close to the focus of this show. Through an abundance of bizarre conversations, awkward character interactions and satirical social commentary, it becomes clear that the series is centred around the narcissistic behaviour of the hotel’s rich white guests.
From the Mossbacher family, a group of individuals oblivious to the privileged lives they lead, to Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), an impossibly needy and out-of-touch alcoholic, almost every character echoes the social commentary the series touches on. Despite even the most arrogant actions from one specific character’s escalating feud with hotel management, there’s no dedicated villain amongst the cast – everyone’s shitty behaviour is simply a product of their privileged upbringing and they have no self-awareness of their actions. The joys of vacationing are gradually stripped away as the lives of these individuals take turns for the worst, and some for the better, with each passing episode.
One of the biggest highlights is the way the creator/director/writer Mike White approaches every single one of the main characters to get you invested in their respective journeys. Every single character has a specific arc that extends the duration of the series, and they’re all equally unique, quirky and endlessly compelling. There’s always 15 things going on at once, with plenty of overlap, and it’s all told in a remarkably cohesive manner. As time goes one, more and more drama unfolds to keep you enthralled in the wild lives and lavish personalities of these hotel guests. You really never know who’s narrative is going to take a turn for the worst and who will come out on top in any situation.
The quirkiness and sheer insanity of the series is driven by the tonal craziness that is in play across each episode. As I mentioned, there’s some serious, hard-hitting drama that brings you to get emotionally invested in a number of these characters’ lives. But there’s also the element of zany conversations and weird satirical comedy that heavily contrasts that serious drama. The marriage of these two conflicting tones is something reminiscent of early Twin Peaks, where the sheer ridiculousness of character interactions would be weaved in with genuine soap-opera drama as if that’s normal. The brilliant thing is… it really works. Whether the dialogue was uncomfortable, weirdly comedic, satirical or just straight laugh-out-loud hilarious, I found myself engrossed in every conversation no matter how ridiculous. It just goes to show how strongly Mike White has applied his vision here to every corner of the series.
I need to highlight the score, which is truly integral to this overall experience. So many scenes throughout each episode are driven by the tempo and impact of the score. I regularly found myself completely locked into scenes with my heart pounding solely due to the power of the score. As things begin getting more tense, the score will pick up the tempo and get louder and louder, contributing to an overall sensory overload designed to almost exhaust you in the moment. From cleverly playing up the comedic beats to contributing to some of the darker moments in the final episodes, the music is a masterpiece. Even the intro music just gets you into the mood to watch the show.
Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that nearly every performance in here is just fantastic. Jennifer Coolidge is brilliant as Tanya – she plays this bonkers character in such a chaotic way that only she could. Whenever she’s on screen you forget about Stiffler’s mum and all her previous roles because her performance here is an emotional triumph. Then there’s Sydney Sweeney, who had me regularly in awe with her performance as the bitchy Olivia Mossbacher. Just like in Everything Sucks!, she’s close to being the standout of every scene she’s in. Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy both smash their respective roles whether they’re sharing scenes or off on their own. Watching how their dynamic evolves through the season and how they both exhibit those changes through their performances is mesmerising. I could go on about many more cast members, but we could be here for a while as this ensemble is phenomenal.
In the end, The White Lotus is without a doubt one of the most unexpectedly bizarre shows of the year. Insane satirical comedy, uncomfortable character conversations, compelling drama and captivating social commentary all combine to create this tonally wild concoction that just works. It locks you in early with a mysterious death, then sends you on a journey through the lives of privileged white folk on vacation at a rich resort. It gradually gets darker and darker as people’s relaxing vacations turn sour, although it actually doesn’t take as dark of a turn as I thought it would. Nonetheless, there’s no question that this isn’t a show for everyone. It’s visually stunning and brilliantly crafted from the mind of Mike White, who executes his very clear vision of the out-of-touch trials and tribulations of rich white people incredibly well. Whoever can’t latch onto the in-your-face tonal shifts by the second episode may not be able to get through it. Although, anyone with a knack for the unconventional, who wants to laugh and be thrilled by countless bizarre narratives unfolding at once, will get a good kick out of this.