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2 November 2022

The White Lotus and the horror of the super-rich

The second season of Mike White’s luxury-hotel comedy-drama is an exquisite examination of the miseries of the wealthy.

By Rachel Cooke

Well, here it is at last: the second season of The White Lotus, a series that should ideally be watched with a pair of sunglasses propped on top of one’s head (preferably Gucci, but anything saucer-sized will do). This time around, Mike White’s repellent holiday-makers arrive at a White Lotus resort in Sicily rather than Hawaii, and they are played, with one exception (Jennifer Coolidge as the pathetically needy Tanya McQuoid), by an entirely new cast. But in every other way the format remains the same. In an opening scene, an unidentified body floats in the sea, after which we promptly scroll back a week, to the deliciously ripe moment when their vacation first began, and everyone was still pretending it might be possible for them to enjoy themselves.

White’s satire-come-murder-mystery is preoccupied above all with the unhappiness of the too-rich. Contentment will always elude his characters: no thread count is ever high enough, no lobster fresh enough, no view Instagram-perfect enough. In a near-permanent state of restlessness, they are reduced to the sum of their impulses, like exotic creatures in a zoo. Take Tanya, now married to Greg, the guy she met in Hawaii. She has worked her way up the White Lotus rankings (a luxe loyalty club), from petal to blossom circle. But what does this really mean? Where next? Faced with the bounty of the hotel breakfast buffet – croissants as flaky as the walls of a medieval monastery and fresh fruit as styled by Picasso – she can only ask the nearest waiter if there is any Oreo cookie cake. When Greg, over his eggs, asks this giant baby what her perfect day might involve, she ignores the real-life technicolour that is all around, and spins a tragic fantasy. She will be Monica Vitti, and they will ride a Vespa together. Later, there will be spaghetti with giant clams (nothing less than giant will do).

In the first series, the hotel manager was Armond (Basil Fawlty with a drug habit and too-tight pink trousers). I do miss him – RIP, Armond – but I also like his shouty, cack-handedly rude replacement, Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore). Adding to the Fellini vibe are two ragazzi, Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), who sneak into the hotel hoping to turn tricks. Tom Hollander, I gather, will soon be along as an English expat called Quentin – crikey, the anticipation – but in the meantime, we must make do with three generations of the male line of Di Grasso family headed by the lecherous Bert (F Murray Abraham), and two young married couples: Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Farhy), and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Ethan (Will Sharpe). Cameron and Ethan were at college together, a jock and a nerd (“the original incel”) respectively. But now the nerd has sold his business (tech, I think) and he is preposterously rich, which makes him newly acceptable to the ghastly, empty-headed Cameron.

The writing is exquisite. White’s dialogue reminds us at every turn that hotels are stage sets: staff and guests alike are always acting until they arrive backstage, at which point their masks slip and crash to the floor. In this realm, people are as easily discarded as last season’s clothes, their every interaction a form of transaction, whether financial, emotional or sexual. Money, in theory, buys them the freedom to do whatever they like, but in truth they’re horribly inhibited, ruled by their unabating competitive instincts (“You must go to the Cipriani!”). In other hands, all this might be relentless, however well observed, but in White’s it manages to be funny, too – a funniness that is highly particular. He is good at comic physical riffs on character that come to feel vital, for all that they have no narrative significance: a farting grandfather, a coughing heiress, a furiously masturbating philanthropist.

“It’s a penis, not a sunset,” someone says at one point, a line that’s all the greater because no one staying at the White Lotus is able fully to enjoy an orange sky. Whose is the body that will end up bobbing on the Ionian waves? I can’t wait to find out, but the mystery is almost beside the point. What I like best about this series is the horror it finds in everyday excess; the feeling it gives me that I’m actually quite glad not to be rich.

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak