The White Lotus (Season 1)
Mike White's Hawaiian-set series is a wobbly class commentary with fascinating characters
Mike White has had quite an irregular career. He’s made his name as a writer during the early 2000s, writing for shows such as Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) and Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), but soon jumped into film, penning the hit School of Rock (2003). Since then, however, he’s had a seesawing trajectory, digging into the indie world with moderate success with Beatriz at Dinner (2017) and Brad’s Status (2017), while also giving in to studio greed by working on such films as Nacho Libre (2006) and The Emoji Movie (2017). White has now undertaken the biggest creative shift of his career, solely writing, producing, and directing every episode of the first season of the HBO series The White Lotus (2021-), and it might finally be the project to launch his artistic credentials.
The White Lotus takes its title from the Hawaiian hotel resort where the series takes place. We follow both the employees of the hotel, such as manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and Spa employee Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) as well as the hotel guests, which are a varied cast of characters. We have newlyweds on their honeymoon (Jake Lacey, Alexandra Daddario), a family on vacation (Steve Zahn, Connie Britton, Sidney Sweeney, Fred Hechinger) with a school friend (Brittany O’Grady), and a woman trying to spread her mother’s ashes in the sea (Jennifer Coolidge). As is expected from such a set-up, personalities ultimately clash.
The White Lotus begins making viewers expect a social class commentary, similar to that of Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975) and its copycat series Downton Abbey (2010-2015). However, White seems to steer viewers away from the lives of the employees, having them be supporting characters in the rich people’s lives instead. While this still permits White to make his commentary on classism and the problems of privilege and systemic inequality, it rings with a hollow tune, given that not much interest is paid to the employees’ lives. We saw this happen as well with the aforementioned Downton Abbey, which as the seasons wore on would focus more on the wealthy characters in detriment of the working-class ones. No doubt the drama, glamour, and visuals are easier to sell when shifting one’s focus there, but it frustratingly starts to look hypocritical as the balance of characters and worlds is upset.
White has a great grasp on characters, however, and one can see his joy in playing around with his cast, much more than the social messages in the series. The characters of Armond and Daddario’s doubtful newlywed are the most interesting, having the more tense and intriguing arcs. However, great performances from the likes of Britton and Zahn, make their unsteady marriage rather fascinating to watch. The same can be said for Sweeny and O’Grady, who struggle with their own class differences, clashing with their duty as young woke progressives. Most of the cast is strong, and White’s writing and direction helps achieve rather delicious scenes. White writes significantly flawed characters, making it hard to pin down clear villains or heroes; while this character choice might be intriguing to some, it can also prove heavy for others, who see the entire cast as unlikeable and whose fates you don’t care about. This perception is part of the risk that White undertakes, and his shuffled ending of fantasy and realism might disappoint more mainstream viewers. However, I found it to be a bold mixture of what reality can deliver, both in achieving some’s dreams, while shattering others.
In the end, The White Lotus proves to be a significant artistic step for White’s career, of finding his voice and messages that he wishes to put across to viewers. He showcases a fantastic wielding of a large cast, using both familiar faces and raising awareness of others. White is largely able to maintain the difficult balance of dark comedy with effective dramatic moments, which helps set the unique tone of this first season (while created as a miniseries, HBO has already ordered a second season). The White Lotus only begins to falter when you think about its core social message, and the contradictions that the series undertakes with who and where it is making its points. Nevertheless, The White Lotus proves to be thought provoking enough to merits its inclusion among HBO’s prestige TV series.