The writer Mike White is a gay man who grew up in California, born in 1970 and got his first writing credit at 28. In 2000 he acted in a movie he wrote called Chuck & Buck, which was the first time I noticed him and my first introduction to his work. Then The Good Girl, Pasadena, Enlightened, and most recently, The White Lotus, the series he considers to be his best work. That’s him on the poster for Chuck & Buck.
His characters are usually emotionally conflicted and/or stunted. But in Chuck & Buck it was so extremely broken the character came off as a stalker rather than someone with an obsession about an old boyfriend.
Don’t really need to speak about The Good Girl or Pasadena as I don’t remember them. Enlightened I loved and watched the series several times. In that show there was really just one broken person: Amy (played by Laura Dern who gets increasingly brilliant as she gets older). There might be 3 broken people if you include her former boyfriend (Luke Wilson) and her mother (Diane Ladd.) All the other characters were “others.” They were corporate stooges. But one of the funnier things for me was the way each episode would begin and end with Amy reciting all these aphorisms, like “Change Begins with Me.”
Her character was so un-enlightened it earned all the comedy from the satire and what we call dramatic irony — that is when the audience knows more than the character. So we, the audience, see Amy’s corporate friends laughing at her and gossiping about her and we see how hypocritical her former assistant “Krista” played by Sarah Burns is. We see her mother’s sighs and eye rolls which Amy, sitting right in front of her, doesn’t, apparently see.
But I think it was that focus on the one character that made it an easy comedy to watch. It probably deserved a few more seasons, but it got two and the show was completed — it wasn’t left in the middle like many other good shows. And in the end she got what she wanted, which was to bring her company down.
The White Lotus comes ten years after Enlightened, and this time, just about all the characters are deranged. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons some people have said they can’t stand it. As I wrote somewhere else it’s a very hard comedy to laugh at. The Mossbachers (a family of four who have brought with them a dark skinned friend of their daughter’s. Her ethnicity matters in the plot.) are played by Steve Zahn (Mark), Connie Britton (Nicole), Sydney Sweeney (Olivia) and Fred Hechinger (Quinn). Paula is Sydney’s friend and is curiously, not given a last name in the series, but is played by Brittney O’Grady.
Jake Lacey arrives on the same boat with his brand new wife Alexandra Daddario. They are Shane and Rachel Patton. The last guest on the boat is one of my favorite actors, Jennifer Coolidge who plays Tanya MacQuoid which she explains is pronounced with “one syllable.” That sort of nonsense is the kind of thing all the hotels workers have to put up with and the leader of these “others” is Armond, played by Murray Bartlett and the lesser ranked Belinda Lindsey (Natasha Rothwell) who runs the spa, which seems to be the only reason Tanya has come to this Hawaiian resort. There are also a couple of cute assistants: Dillon and Hutch (Lukas Gage and Alex Merlino.)
The series starts almost at the end of the story with a very morose looking Jake Lacey waiting by himself at the airport. He tells some inquiring tourists if he liked his stay and when he said he stayed at The White Lotus, the couple say, “We heard someone died there.” He tells them to fuck off, goes to look out the window at the plane and sees them loading a coffin size box with the words “Human Remains” on the side. The scene cuts to 7 days earlier when all those mentioned above are first arriving at The White Lotus. So from the start, there is a mystery about who died and who is the coffin at the end.
People have said — probably correctly — that this is about white privilege or rich white privilege because all the characters, with the exception of Paula, is white and they are all rich. The staff is either Hawaiian or white, and all have to work. But I think what Mike White shows, or believes, is that it is not possible to “mingle” or really even co-exist when half the people in this resort are working their asses off to please the other half who are doing nothing but eating or funtivities like learning to scuba. The service class — which is now 77% of America and includes 16 to 17 million people working in hotels and resorts — is very much a suffering silent class with almost no unionization and low pay. When things go wrong, and everything more or less goes wrong for these people, it is the service class who will pay the price.
The first thing to go wrong is a genuine mistake. Murray has accidentally double booked the Palm Suite which Shane Patton thinks is his honeymoon suite. Murray lies and says it must have been booked wrong by Shane’s mother, but says correctly that the Pineapple Suite is a better suite. This isn’t good enough for Shane and, in fact, nothing is ever good enough for him. His wife is already having doubts about having made a mistake marrying him because she knows she’s just eye candy for his ego. She’s a trophy wife and he is also unable to listen — most of the time because he’s obsessed with not getting the room he wanted. Tanya in the meantime, is a drunken mess, but makes friends with Belinda at the spa and invites her to dinner. She repeats several times that Belinda ought to go into business for herself and she could finance it. The fact that she’s repeating herself should have been a clue for Belinda that she’s constantly drunk and not remembering things.
The family is a shit show. Perhaps the most unlikeable group of the bunch. The daughter Olivia and her friend Paula are constantly mean, to everyone. They pretend to read books and have a book consultant tell them what to pretend to read. The mother is the breadwinner in this family and she’s always going on about having to zoom China. (In real life, Connie Britton speaks either the Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese.) The little brother Quinn, is the picked on runt of the group and the girls make him sleep on the beach because they don’t want him fapping while looking at Paula. He’s addicted to his devices, but they fall off his chaise (or chayze if pronounced by Tanya) while he’s sleeping, the tide comes in and washes them away. The girls have brought drugs, including ketamine, and do some but forget to take Paula’s backpack with them. The pack gets turned in, eventually winding up in Murray’s hands who, coincidentally, is 5 years sober. Not anymore. The hilarity of all these people being mean to each other continues for six days until finally, someone is accidentally killed. I had, by the last episode, a pretty good idea of who the victim was, but was hoping it was not. There’s enough info in this review to make a guess, but you’d have to read between the lines abit.
Slapstick is a strange form (well all comedy is strange I think) — but slapstick in particular is usually at its funniest when the characters are all in a struggle to live. They’re running in and out of doors so that the man with the axe doesn’t get them, or the police don’t catch them and take them to jail. Slapstick is desperation. The sitcom is a mini tragedy. In each episode the characters do the wrong thing — think of I Love Lucy and how many times she did the wrong thing that got her into trouble and antics. There’s a reason Ricky kept saying “You can’t be in the show.” Think of Mary Tyler Moore giving dinner parties. How many times did Murray try to insult Sue Ann Nivens, only get an insult ten times as nasty, usually about his baldness.
This show made me think of the line of Thoreau’s that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He felt this was caused by misplaced value. And one very cogent reviewer said, of this series, that the series is about people who are being made miserable by all their things and posessions, but would rather hang onto them than give them up. I think that’s half an explanation because it fits in with Quinn, the overlooked little brother, eventually finding some emotional satisfaction in paddling an outrigger with some local men who affectionately call him “fucka.” But this wasn’t by choice. His sister and her friend made him sleep on the beach and the waves took his devices. It was only when he was freed from these chains that he found something else. I think most of the characters were desperate, in one way or another, but I don’t always think that came from wealth, phones, devices or drugs. I think the deeper answer is that we are living in an impossible situation — perhaps one of the reasons people in this covid era of reopening are not going back to work like everyone expected. As Murray said, before he started doing some drugs, “I exploit you, they exploit me, that’s how it works.”