What do people expect from their vacations? Rest? Sure. Fun? Absolutely. But also miracles.
They want one week out of the year to somehow rectify the other 51; to make them fall in love, or back in love; to strengthen tattered family bonds; to provide closure; to create deathbed memories; to summon magic, serendipitously yet on demand.
Our expectations are unrealistic under the humblest circumstances. Add a high-priced destination and a cast of privileged guests skilled at undermining their own happiness, and you have a formula for disaster, or at least a strongly worded complaint to the manager.
This is the setup for the captivating, sun-and-acid-drenched “The White Lotus,” beginning Sunday on HBO, in which a week’s getaway at an elite resort in Hawaii turns, for three different parties and the staff serving them, into a multifront war in the Pacific.
The six-episode soap-satire, written and directed by Mike White (HBO’s “Enlightened”), begins as “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” did in gentler TV times, with a vanguard of staff greeting a round of V.I.P.s. Here, however, the staff is neither effortlessly cheerful nor supernaturally powerful. They are laborers, physical and emotional, whose job is to anticipate needs, to be always present and yet never noticeable.
As the resort manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett), explains to a trainee, “You don’t want to be too specific, as a presence, as an identity. You want to be more generic.”
Through the urbane, meticulous Armond, we see the invisible gymnastics that go into this job. Each greeting of a guest involves a slew of micro-assessments: who needs assurance, who needs a drink. It’s high-pressure work (Armond is in fact a recovering addict), performed from behind a mask of placid namaste.
This will not be a perfect week. We learn in an in-medias-res opening that someone is going to die, a mystery that gives “The White Lotus” a gentle plot push. But the series’s real driving force is money. Even the sunlight feels like money here; White bathes scenes in so much golden glow, you would believe that the hotel has exclusive access to a private, premium-tier sun.
And money defines the character relationships, not just between the guests and staff but among the guests. There’s the Mossbacher family: Nicole (Connie Britton), a high-level executive; her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), who seems to feel emasculated by her success (he’s having a health scare literally involving his testicles); their son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), alienated and living inside his phone; and their coolly terrifying daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), whose sidekick Paula (Brittany O’Grady) is bound by the unwritten rule that she must never have anything that Olivia doesn’t.
Also poolside are the newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), on a honeymoon that his wealthy family paid for. While she wonders if she’s rushed into a marriage in which she’s a second-class citizen, he becomes obsessed with the suspicion that Armond has put them in a premium suite that’s slightly less premium than the one they booked.
Shane is a jerk about it, but he’s not mistaken, and the escalating, passive-aggressive battle between him and Armond becomes the snaky heart of “The White Lotus.” Armond’s usual blandishments are no match for the relentless lacrosse stick of Shane’s entitlement. Lacy, who has often played bland nice guys, is whinily magnificent, and Bartlett plays the manager as a coiled spring who spends the week disastrously unwinding.
Their conflict is not about a room, or the coveted plunge pool that Shane has been denied, or even, ultimately, the money. Shane knows that he has the power in this dynamic, and his insistence on getting his pound of sashimi-grade flesh becomes a sadistic quest. (Our society lacks a male equivalent for a “Karen,” shorthand for the privileged white antagonist who would like to speak to your supervisor, but after this series, it might just be a “Shane.”)
These serpents-in-Eden themes are familiar for White. In his two-season masterpiece, “Enlightened,” Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) undergoes a wobbly journey from nervous wreck to social-justice crusader, after a rehab stint in Hawaii where she has an epiphany while swimming with sea turtles — an image that “The White Lotus” reprises. (Another possibly salient credit was White’s stint as a contestant on “Survivor: David vs. Goliath,” in which underdogs and overdogs competed on a tropical island.)
White’s signature tone is sardonic and sincere at the same time. He has an ear for how people can weaponize idealism; he understands how the language of self-care and self-help can gussy up plain old self-interest. The flip side of this is that he is a generous enough writer to find the vulnerability in even his most grating characters.
You can see this in Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), who steps off the V.I.P. boat in a depressive haze, with a plan to scatter her dead mother’s ashes at the resort. She could easily tilt into a ditzy-rich-lady caricature, but instead, she has a damaged authenticity and flashes of self-awareness. You feel for her — yet this doesn’t excuse the emotional-vampire bond she develops with the spa manager, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), another one-sided relationship dominated by the person paying the room charges.
“The White Lotus” could use more attention to the downstairs half of its upstairs-downstairs story; it flicks at, but doesn’t really explore, the lives of the native Hawaiian staff busing tables and performing dinnertime rituals. And it sometimes strains to be topical, with its culture-war Mad Libs references to triggering and cucking, canceling and doxxing.
But this is a sharp, soulful series that knows its characters in full and gets richer as it goes on. It’s vicious and a little sudsy and then, out of nowhere, sneakily uplifting. Along with its class-conscious bite, it has a sincere sense of beauty and awe. We all work and play and live and die under the same sun, “The White Lotus” says. Some of us just manage to get in more sunbathing than others.