Israelis aren’t noted for their interest in red, amber or green while driving, but they’ve been paying particular care to those colors while trying to plan their summer vacations.
Anecdotally, it seems many have abandoned plans for exotic jaunts – which may make a show like HBO’s “The White Lotus” particularly attractive. (And if you like the idea of virtually visiting deluxe destinations and don’t want to sully your eyes by watching tawdry reality shows like “Love Island” or “Too Hot to Handle,” Hulu’s Liane Moriarty adaptation “Nine Perfect Strangers,” set at an exclusive health resort and with an all-star cast, looks particularly promising for next month.)
“The White Lotus” was created by Mike White, whose name always guarantees the promise of something quirky, offbeat and occasionally sleazy. (Call me a philistine, but I still think 2003’s “School of Rock,” which White wrote and co-starred in, is one of Richard Linklater’s finest hours.)
Two of the shows he has worked on over the past 20-odd (very odd, in his case) years – “Enlightened” with Laura Dern, and Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” – occupy the letters “E” and “F” on a list I recently drew up for myself of shows I need to watch before I die (it starts with “Atlanta,” ends with “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” and, whisper it, includes “The Wire” at “W”).
So, I had high hopes going into “The White Lotus” – and was not disappointed. The first thing I would advise is that you don’t binge-watch it, given the paucity of really good new shows out there right now (we seem to be getting about two a month, which I assume is due to the effect of COVID restrictions on productions over the past year).
Try to luxuriate in these weekly episodes, which was also the best way, in retrospect, to enjoy the biggest TV hit of the year, “Mare of Easttown.” Oh, and if you’re really stuck for somewhere to go this summer, there’s always Wallingford, Pennsylvania, which is where some of that bleak-looking HBO show was filmed and has since become an unlikely tourist destination.
Wish you were here?
The beauty of the six-part “White Lotus” is that while its gorgeous setting – it was filmed at the Four Seasons Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui during the pandemic – may make you wish you were there, the nauseating nature of some of the guests will make you decidedly glad you’re not stuck next to them reclining on a lounge chair by the pool.
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This is a story – satire would be too strong a word for it in my eyes, though that’s how HBO are billing it – in which writer/director White has a lot of fun mocking a group of FUWWFs (F****d-Up Wealthy White Folks) vacationing in paradise, and a small number of the staff members working hard to maintain that illusion of paradise.
After an initial set-up in a Hawaiian airport where we learn that there has recently been a death at the White Lotus, we are taken back a week to the arrival of three wealthy vacationing parties at that very resort and spa: the Mossbachers, led by a Sheryl Sandberg-esque Connie Britton as powerful businesswoman Nicole, her somewhat comical husband Mark (Steve Zahn), who fears he may have testicular cancer (as we discover the hard way in a very, well, ballsy scene), their college-age kids Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and super-snarky Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and, along for the free ride, her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady); newlyweds Shane and Rachel Patton (Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario), only one of whom is used to such extravagance; and Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), a barely functioning rich lady who has come to the island for a specific, unusual purpose.
There to help the super-rich have a super-fun time are resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett, looking like a pastel-clad cross between Borat and Basil Fawlty, and increasingly channeling the latter), his young assistant, Dillon (Lukas Gage), and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who has a magic touch when it comes to handling Tanya’s stressed-out body and soul.
As Armond explains to a new female trainee (who steals the show in the first episode for reasons I can’t divulge) about interacting with the island’s VIP guests, “You don’t want to be too specific a presence. You want to be generic. It’s a Japanese ethos where we are asked to disappear behind a mask. It’s tropical Kabuki.” Or, as he later puts it, “You have to treat these people like sensitive children.”
White can always be relied upon to deliver larger-than-life, slightly twisted characters, and leading the pack here is Coolidge – an actress who can make you laugh simply by the way she drinks a cup of peppermint tea or a glass of wine, or by contorting her distinctive facial features while enjoying a massage. (She’s joined later in the season by another acclaimed comedy actress, but I won’t spoil that particular surprise any more than I already have.)
Just behind Tanya in the kooky stakes is Zahn’s Mark, whose Trump-esque tan isn’t the only color he brings to the proceedings. He receives some shocking news early on which forces his character to review a fundamental relationship in his life. He also manages to keep a straight face while delivering lines such as “There’s the man and there’s the monkey” within every male. “And somehow, you got to be man enough to face down the monkey.”
The show is dripping with great one-liners, most of which go to Britton’s Nicole. When she’s told by her permanently scowling daughter that she looks deranged ahead of a Zoom call, she responds, “It’s OK, I have a filter for that.” Or when she’s informed that Paula has been clinically diagnosed as a Highly Sensitive Person, she snaps back, “Really? Who’s her physician – Lena Dunham?”
“White Lotus” also has a lot of fun with the very white world it is skewering and the cultural divide between Nicole and her uber-privileged, perma-woke daughter. Or as Nicole puts it, “Your generation’s only sacred value: biting the hand that feeds you.”
True, some of the characters are more interesting than others (Shane is basically a ball of Waspy testosterone in a Polo shirt, and I would have liked the two young female friends to be more than just drug-fueled extras from “Euphoria”). Also, the vast disparity between the have-lots and have-nots isn’t explored nearly enough as the creators focus almost exclusively on the wealthy (such is life, I suppose).
Even so, there’s so much to enjoy in this miniseries that only a self-entitled douchebag like Shane would complain about minor flaws or that the concluding episode in this admirably brief show dips a little below what has come before it.
What starts as a comedy drama soon evolves into something that ratchets up the excruciating scenes by the episode, so it’s not long before you’re crawling in your skin at many of the things these characters say and do (perhaps the show’s most classic Mike White line is “You said that having sex with Mom is like eating a plate of live worms”).
You may not get to as beautiful a location as “The White Lotus” this year, but you’ll certainly be glad you didn’t stray too far from your TV screen to watch this blackly comic delight.
Mom’s the word
On a separate note – another month, another Israeli series sold overseas. This time, it’s the sitcom “Haverot” (literally “Female Friends” in Hebrew, but known as “Little Mom” internationally for reasons doubtless connected to the occupants of a sofa at Central Perk), which is about to be remade in the U.K. as “Hullraisers.”
It will star comedian Lucy Beaumont, who’s a native of the northern English city – a working-class port that is occasionally compared to hell, especially by those who visit on a Friday night.
It’s another success story for Israeli TV, but the new show, which will air on the historically edgy Channel 4, will do well to emulate the original’s five-season run – especially with that unfunny, pun-driven title.
“The White Lotus” is on Hot HBO on Mondays at 10 P.M., and is also available to download every Monday on Hot and Yes VOD, Sting TV, Next TV and Cellcom tv.