Second seasons can be complicated. But HBO The White Lotus, which won five Emmy Awards in September for its first season, naturally lends itself to being extended. It happened in a resort with guests – why can’t you start over, exploring a new beautiful setting?
And that’s what Mike White did, again recognized as the season’s only writer and director. (Note: HBO provided reviewers with five of the seven episodes.)
This story takes place at the White Lotus in Sicily. All of the guests staying for a week are new to the show, except for Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), who is traveling with her now-husband Greg (Jon Gries) and her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). Our new guests include a quartet of two college buddies and their wives (Theo James and Meghann Fahy as Cameron and Daphne Sullivan; Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza as Ethan and Harper Spiller) and three generations of men traveling together (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco as Bert, Dominic and Albie Di Grasso). We also meet a local couple, Lucia and Mia (Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò), young women who get tangled up with various guests.
As with the first season, we open with a scene set at the end of the week that reveals something terrible has happened, and then we watch that week unfold. (One has to wonder how many deaths the White Lotus chain of resorts can absorb before taking a reputation hit.)
The most obvious difference in the structure of this second season is that it focuses on the guests almost to the exclusion of the staff. Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) is the manager, but she isn’t seen much and she rarely interacts with guests, which is a stark departure from Season 1, where proud manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) was the closest thing that we were to be a point-of-view character, and where his simmering rage and efforts to run the place against all sorts of forces aligned against him were a constant counterweight to the carefree lives of the guests.
Thematically, without this tension between how customers see themselves and how staff see them, The White Lotus seems adrift. With all the criticism of the first season and the fair questions as to whether it was a satire of its rich, white characters’ lack of interest in the people around them or just replicating it, it was always clear what the show was about. trying be about to, or thought he was about to. He was trying to be about the weaknesses of wealth and recklessness; it’s much less clear where White is going with this story.
In general terms, the theme is sex. There is a constant feeling that sexual activity could break out among almost any combination of the four people who make up the Spiller-Sullivan party at almost any time, even if (because?) they all seem vaguely hostile. towards each other, and their resentments, when they finally begin to spark, give the season its most intriguing moments. The bloodline that runs through Di Grasso’s men is deeply tied to attitudes towards women, the marriages of Bert and Dominic, and the unhealthy beginnings of “but I’m a pleasant guy” in young Albie. Lucia and Mia seem to do sex work at least sometimes, though at other times they just appear to be pretty young women improvising around rich men, especially wealthy tourists Richardson is one of my favorite young actresses, and she’s effortlessly charming as the frazzled Portia, who’s caught between the attractions she feels and the attractions she thinks she should feel.
Indeed, Mike White said Vulture (in a piece I recommend to you) that this season’s pilot is a piece of folklore about sexual jealousy and deception. But in these first five episodes, the thing meanders a bit. There are good isolated scenes but the sense of propulsion towards that terrible outcome that we know is inevitable does not materialize with the vigor that White managed during the Hawaii season.
Plus, as easy as it is to love Jennifer Coolidge—and it is easy—she seems alien here. Tanya in season one was an outlandish mess, but her grief and seemingly sincere desire to awaken her own spirit made her oddly compelling. But since we learned then (through her interactions with Natasha Rothwell’s Belinda) that she’s ultimately as carefree and self-centered on the inside as she seems on the outside, the complex elements of her character have faded. and the cartoonish parts are more important. Much of her story here is about being somehow “adopted” by a traveling group of gay men led by Tom Hollander, but there’s nothing in that story that seems, so far, to be on a lot of everything except watching Coolidge be Coolidge. And don’t get me wrong, you could do worse. But you can also do better.
The problem with Mike White is never, in my eyes, whether he’s a thoughtful guy or an interesting writer. He has a lot of ideas, although some work better than others. The question is partly whether, in deciding to carry out this project as Phone a solitary creative work where he is the only writer and the only director, he facilitated the confusion of these ideas in the execution. He bet thoroughly not only on his concepts, but on his ability to translate them into a screenplay and then onto the screen. There are many precedents for this choice, especially in the cinema. But these five episodes feel like they could have benefited from being seen by more eyes from more angles.
It is possible that all of this will appear with more clarity by the end; five out of seven is a difficult number of episodes to rate. But at first, it seems even the most obvious second seasons have their perils.
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