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18 August 2021

The White Lotus is Agatha Christie with tiki torches and Xanax – and I loved it

This weird, funny drama about a luxury hotel in Hawaii understands the rich and powerful are often uneasy in their skin, and plays on this. 

By Rachel Cooke

If you’re reading this in a holiday cottage in the Lake District, or anywhere else where it might be pouring with rain, fear not. The cavalry is riding rapidly towards you in the form of White Lotus. Personally, I think this weird, funny drama, brought to us by Mike White (its writer, best known for School of Rock) and HBO/Sky Atlantic, is brilliant for all sorts of reasons. But bearing in mind the way this summer is going, chief among them is surely that, as we wait yet again for our cagoules to dry out, it’s good to be able to enjoy a large dollop of Schadenfreude with our steaming hot mugs of tea.

In six moreish episodes, each one tastier than the last, this series follows a group of rich guests and those whose job it is to mollycoddle them at a luxury hotel (the White Lotus) in Hawaii. The action takes place over the course of a single week, and thanks to a prologue, we know even before we’ve hit the beach that someone is going to die. Like a wasp in a strawberry daiquiri, menace seems to be lurking beneath the surface of everything here: think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with added tiki torches, aloha nachos and Xanax. However, the show’s impulses are also satirical. Our holidaymakers are the kind of gratuitously covetous little babies for whom a wrap-around view of the Pacific is entirely meaningless unless they have a private plunge pool from which to stare at it (even then, they’ll mostly be looking at their phones).

Presiding over this nursery, dummy in one hand and a bottle (Veuve Clicquot, not milk) in the other, is Armond (Murray Bartlett), its manager – an Australian in a pink jacket who thinks, usually, of his obsequiousness as a hard-earned skill rather than something to despise in himself (as he tells a trainee, staff must perform their unctuous “tropical kabuki” at all times). Bartlett’s performance is exquisite; watching him try to keep everyone happy is like watching a reverse Basil Fawlty. “Would you like a second toilet?” he asks Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), a honeymooner who wants to upgrade his already gargantuan suite – at which point, you half expect Armond to whip out the quilted toilet roll and offer to wipe his bum, too.

[see also: ITV’s Professor T is a lockdown nightmare gone wrong]

But all the performances are magnificent: Jennifer Coolidge as the treatment-obsessed Tanya McQuoid, who’ll “take anything but reiki” on the hotel’s massage menu; Steve Zahn as a surrendered husband called Mark Mossbacher, whose swollen testicles are, he worries, “very Gogol”; Sydney Sweeney as Olivia, Mark’s sardonic daughter, who passes off the smell of weed to her parents as “doing witchcraft” and whose friend, Paula, has been diagnosed as HSP – aka a highly sensitive person (Olivia’s mother wonders if her “physician was Lena Dunham”). The cast makes the most of White’s script, which subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) conveys the sense that flashy hotels are just flimsy stage sets, the ramshackle backs of which no guest must ever see. Together they channel, with an understatement that’s in tension with the girth of their characters’ wallets, the tinny oddness with which every scene is imbued, whether we’re talking about the new Mrs Patton (Alexandra Daddario) determinedly sunbathing beneath an overcast and liverish sky, or Tanya’s blissed-out infant face, shot from below through the hole in a massage table.

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This might be unfair, but it’s rather amazing to be presented with an American show whose essential messae seems to be that, as my granny would have put it, much shall have more. Still, there this memo is, impossible to miss. The rich, the powerful and the overweeningly ambitious are, White understands, often uneasy in their skin; such is the circularity and blindness involved in wealth that comfort will always elude them. The emptiness! At one moment, we see Olivia’s brother Quinn (Fred Hechinger) walk through a swimming pool, his arms carefully raised so the tech he’s carrying won’t get wet. He looks semi-religious, almost like a penitent. But his face has nothing to do with contrition, or even gratitude. It is as blank as a screen. It holds no more interest for us – for anyone – than the piles of fluffy white towels in the hotel spa.

The White Lotus 
HBO/Sky Atlantic

[see also: The only thing we can learn from Sexy Beasts is that we are living in the era of Stupid TV]