Roush Review: Perils of Paradise in a Sicilian ‘The White Lotus’

The White Lotus Season 2 Jennifer Coolidge

The White Lotus

Matt's Rating: rating: 4.5 stars

A guarantee: You’re going to want to book a trip to Sicily, pronto, after devouring the dazzling new season of HBO’s The White Lotus. Let’s just hope you get an upgrade when it comes to your traveling companions.

Once again, Emmy-winning writer-director Mike White gathers a fascinating but emotionally fraught ensemble of world vacationers who can’t get over themselves long enough to savor the scenery. And what scenery. The glorious Ionian sea churns, storm clouds gather, and a distant volcano smolders ominously as if Mother Nature is biding her time waiting for human nature, in all of its moral ambiguity and capricious carnality, to erupt.

“Whenever I stay at a White Lotus, I always have a memorable time,” understates last season’s wacky basket case, half-billionaire heiress Tanya (Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge), whose mood swings are like tidal waves. The bloom is off her marriage to Greg (Jon Gries), whom she met while staying in Hawaii. He resents that she brought her restless assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), along as a prisoner to her whims. Portia’s none too pleased to be yoked to this “miserable mess,” either.

In her misery, Tanya is adopted by a group of good-time gays from nearby Palermo, led by the colorful Quentin (Tom Hollander), who sees her as a “tragic heroine in a Puccini opera.” Or maybe just an outrageous Looney Tune?

Among the other guests demonstrating the pitfalls of privilege in paradise, the most compelling is Harper (Aubrey Plaza), the aloof and secretly insecure spouse of uneasily nouveau riche Ethan (Will Sharpe). They’re traveling with his smug hunk of a former college roomie, the well-off Cameron (Theo James), and his bubbly wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy), who appall Harper — and by extension the viewer — with their disregard for “the whole news cycle.” Harper suspects this deeply shallow couple’s lovey-dovey marriage is a scam. But what to make of their own oddly passionless union?

The White Lotus Season 2 cast

Fabio Lovino/HBO

F. Murray Abraham and The SopranosMichael Imperioli are impeccably cast as father-and-son philanderers of very different generations, bickering while grandson Albie (an appealingly earnest Adam DiMarco) tries to play peacemaker. Albie is the show’s token innocent, a nice guy who may be too nice for the likes of the adventurous Portia, who’s looking for any escape from the neurotic Tanya. The fear throughout the series is that no one will make it out of this utopia with an unsoiled soul.

What Season 2 lacks is any member of the White Lotus staff to hold our interest, a far cry from Murray Bartlett’s Emmy-winning turn as the manic manager in Maui. The Sicilian boss lady, Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), is unappealingly uptight and humorless, and her unrequited crush on a reception-desk employee seems too obviously destined for a humiliating backfire.

Compensating with local color are two bewitching and predatory young women: the seductive Lucia (Simona Tabasco), whose affections can be paid for, and her ambitious friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò), who only wants to sing and play piano in the resort’s lounge. They’re always lurking in and around the premises, their fates intertwining with many of the guests in provocative, sometimes poignant, ways.

And though we know, like in the Hawaii edition, that not everyone will survive this trip, we appreciate the irony as Daphne greets new arrivals: “Italy is just so romantic. You’re gonna die.”

True enough. Sicily, and The White Lotus, are to die for.

The White LotusSeason Premiere, Sunday, Oct. 30, 9/8c, HBO