Money is the root of all satire in HBO’s “The White Lotus.”
Specifically, well-heeled white vacationers at a Hawaiian resort are the targets of writer-director Mike White‘s barbed take on class and privilege in the six-episode limited series (Sundays, 9 EDT/PDT; also streaming on HBO Max).
“Lotus” explores “how money – and who has the money – can pervert even the most intimate relationships, and how it courses through all our relationships,” White says.
Resort guests include dominant tech exec Nicole (Connie Britton) and her insecure husband Mark (Steve Zahn), an out-of-balance power couple accompanied by their two teen children and a friend; needy Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), grieving the loss of her mother who forms an awkward bond with helpful spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell); and honeymooner Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), increasingly horrified about her new partner, the petty, self-satisfied Shane (Jake Lacy).
The arrival of Shane’s mother (Molly Shannon), there to help him deal with his eternal dissatisfaction over having to settle for the resort’s second-best suite, might not be the stuff of honeymoon dreams. “I do not think that bodes well for the future of that marriage,” Lacy says.
Navigating this hard-to-please assortment is White Lotus resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), who’s obsequious to – and scornful of – his guests.
Thanks to an opening bomb dropped by White, it’s immediately clear that this combustible mix of humanity will result in more than hurt feelings. One unfortunate member of this troupe will leave the island in a coffin, a mystery designed to lure in viewers for a later payoff.
In “Lotus,” White (“Enlightened,” “School of Rock”) says he wanted to “unpack the boogeyman of the rich, white, privileged person” while avoiding one-dimensional caricatures.
“If they’re just ogres, the audience can just say, ‘Those people are that and I’m this virtuous person,’ ” he says. “I felt like if I did it right, it would be more indicting. You hope you see yourself a little bit in the characters so you can’t just” dismiss them.
White recognized a bit of Shane in himself recently when his San Diego hotel room wasn’t ready on time. “I was literally that guy. I was like, ‘The room was supposed to be ready at 4,’ and I’m looking at this woman behind the desk (knowing) this is not her fault, but at the same time, she’s (deceiving) me.”
For people who appear to have it all, unhappiness arises when you can’t live up to your public facade, Britton says.
“Nicole and Mark are desperately trying to comply with societal convention in terms of having the perfect marriage and being the perfect parents. She’s hyper-successful, he feels insecure and emasculated. So they have contempt for each other, and yet it’s mostly because they’re not fulfilling” cultural expectations, Britton says.
Armond, who’s struggling to maintain sobriety, is at a midpoint in the status ladder. He panders to guests while barely – and hilariously – concealing his disdain for those “entitled, obnoxious people,” as Bartlett calls them. But he also rides roughshod over the resort staff, and his battle with ever-complaining Shane is a “Lotus” highlight.
“I love the lack of sensitivity different characters have, depending on where they fall in that hierarchy,” he says. Belinda, who runs the spa, “has a lot of self-awareness and is very sensitive. Armond, because he’s in a power position in the hotel, does at times treat the people under him crappy, but he has enough self-awareness at moments to see through what’s going on and to feel horrified at some of his behavior.”
Money may be the worst thing for Tanya, who’s mourning her mother’s death with plans to scatter her ashes at the idyllic resort, Coolidge says.
“So many people think that wealth is going to fix their problems. They couldn’t possibly believe it could lead to more isolation and unhappiness,” she says. “It seems like it would repair so many things, but if you’re lonely and have never been loved in the right way, you are kind of doomed if you have a lot of money.”
Filming on location at the Four Seasons resort in Maui late last year,the series required extensive COVID-19 protocols, but those constraints yielded an unexpected benefit.
“Because we were in a bubble, we were with each other 24/7. And when the actors weren’t working, they were still together on the beach or sitting around the hotel,” White says. “It felt like a real repertory vibe.”
When the resort reopened to regular guests during filming, it was a surprise and an eye-opener for cast members, Zahn says.
“It freaked us out a little bit because it’s the middle of the pandemic and now there’s people coming there,” he says. “But it was really interesting to see the people we were playing come to the resort. Like, oh, here’s who we are.”