Roush Review: Dark Clouds in Paradise in HBO’s ‘White Lotus’

Review
HBO

Hey, did someone drizzle vinegar over my shaved ice? A visit to Hawaii’s plush White Lotus resort (filmed at Maui’s Four Seasons) is guaranteed to leave a sour aftertaste, as long as director-writer Mike White (Enlightened) is playing jaundiced tour guide to a motley assortment of overprivileged guests.

“They get everything they want, but they don’t even know what they want,” explains tightly wound hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), masking a passive-aggressive hostility behind his wide mustachioed grin. A new flock of demanding and self-absorbed customers is going to be the death of someone, as we’re tipped off in the opening moments of The White Lotus, a fitfully diverting and gorgeously filmed six-part limited series.

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The someone’s-gonna-die hook is reminiscent of Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, whose own satirical novel (Nine Perfect Strangers) set at an exotic wellness retreat is coming to Hulu later this summer. Watching Lotus, I kept hearing Noël Coward’s immortal ditty “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” in my head.

This impeccably cast tribe of spiritually ugly Americans is led by the sublime Connie Britton as celebrated CEO Nicole Mossbacher, whose idea of relaxation involves rearranging the furniture in her disgruntled family’s suite. The appealing Steve Zahn plays Mark, her mensch of a husband, who undergoes several existential crises during their stay and delivers the series’ underlying message when he reflects on the sort of American imperialism that changed Hawaii forever: “Nobody cedes their privilege. That’s absurd. It goes against human nature. We’re all just trying to win the game of life.”

His speeches tend to get eye-rolls from their smug daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), so toxic she could qualify for sibling streamer HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot. She brings along her BFF Paula (Brittany O’Grady), whose ill-fated flirtation with a hotel employee stimulates her social conscience as she laments “watching all the Hawaiians have to dance for all these white people that stole their islands. It’s depressing.” So is she.

The White Lotus Sydney Sweeney Brittany O'Grady HBO

Mario Perez/HBO

White’s gaze is a bit more sympathetic toward Olivia’s younger brother Quinn (Fred Hechinger), a moody kid who finally lifts his eyes from his video games long enough to see the splendor around him—not that anyone else much notices. And we’re all apparently meant to empathize with Tanya, a ridiculously needy hot mess who’s trying to scatter her loathed mother’s ashes in the ocean. Jennifer Coolidge finds mirth in misery as Tanya flails and overshares to anyone within earshot, especially spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who gets caught up in her client’s delusional web.

One of Tanya’s less willing victims is Lotus’ main villain: spoiled preppy honeymooner Shane (Jake Lacy), who appalls his insecure bride (Alexandra Daddario) by incessantly hounding Armond because he didn’t get the honeymoon suite his mother booked. And that’s even before the monster-in-law herself (Molly Shannon) shows up.

A travelers’ tip from experience: Rent a condo next time and experience Maui on your own. These jerks almost never stop to savor the hibiscus and apparently didn’t even take the fabled road to Hana. What a waste.

The White Lotus, Limited Series Premiere, Sunday, July 11, 9/8c, HBO