We begin at the end in the six-part HBO series “The White Lotus,” with a casket being loaded onto a plane. Flash back a week earlier, and we’re introduced to the core group of characters in writer-director Mike White’s dark and ice-cold and intermittently intriguing but unfortunately off-putting social satire.
We know one of these people is going home in a box. Problem is, as the series plods forward, it’s a bit difficult to care WHICH of the main players will get the Agatha Christie treatment – not because most of them are selfish, unlikable narcissists, but because they’re one-note characters with skin-deep personalities. This is particularly surprising and disappointing, given that White is a unique talent who created and co-starred in the underrated HBO series “Enlightened” and wrote the screenplays for “Chuck and Buck,” “School of Rock” and “The One and Only Ivan.” This time around, however, White takes his aim at easy targets and frames their stories like anthropological studies, keeping us at a distance and producing only sporadic bursts of smart and uncomfortable humor.
Filmed at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea in a production bubble during the pandemic, “The White Lotus” plays like a twisted, landlocked extended episode of “The Love Boat,” as we follow the misadventures of a handful of members of the staff as well as a small group of vacationers whose stories occasionally intertwine.
The staff includes the persnickety manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett), who is not particularly good at his job but tries to deflect responsibility for everything that goes wrong, and the overworked and underappreciated spa manager, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who has amazing massage techniques and some great ideas about health and wellness, and dreams of one day opening her own place.
As for the guests, what a colorful bunch of blithering, privileged dolts – most of whom are so obnoxious you’d want to move away from their table if you were stuck next to them at the restaurant.
Let’s start with the Mossbachers. Connie Britton is Nicole, a tech/lifestyle guru who runs some kind of Goop-type enterprise, and Steve Zahn is her hapless husband, Mark, who is in a tizzy because he’s about to find out if he has testicular cancer. Sydney Sweeney is their college sophomore daughter, Olivia, who says wildly inappropriate things just to get a rise out of her parents; Brittany O’Grady is Olivia’s best friend, Paula, who sets her sights on an islander who works as a busboy at the restaurant; and Fred Hechinger is Olivia’s younger brother, Quinn, a brooding lad who is bullied by his sister and horrified by his father’s attempts to bond with him.
Also on the trip are newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who are so mismatched it’s a wonder they ever dated, let alone got married, and the annoyingly strange Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), who wanders around the resort looking for the perfect place and time to scatter her mother’s ashes.
“The White Lotus” is also scattered, as we follow subplots involving the disappearance of Paula’s bag, which contains a haul of drugs; Tanya befriending spa manager Belinda and making promises about providing the seed money for Belinda to start her own business; trust fund brat Shane telling his wife she should stop trying to become a journalist because they don’t need the money, and oh yeah, some truly tasteless material involving an off-screen character dying of AIDS some years ago – something a main character in this story has just learned in the most contrived way imaginable.
Granted, there are times when the bleak humor is smart, and this is a very well-acted show, but too many of the characters never rise above caricature. Jennifer Coolidge has always been the kind of actor who swings for the fences, and while there’s something to be admired about that kind of bravery, in this case she plays Tanya as someone who is not just daffy and self-centered, but clearly in need of serious help. Jake Lacy’s Shane is such a dimwit bro we want to yell for Rachel to wake up and run for her life.
As for the Mossbachers, the mother and father are comically inept parents, while their daughter Olivia and her friend Paula aren’t just Mean Girls; they’re borderline sociopaths with almost zero empathy. Natasha Rothwell’s Belinda is the most likable and human character, but her story arc is far too predictable and often gets lost in the dark high jinks of the nightmare guests and the idiot hotel manager.