The White Lotus thinks we’re all going to fall for the same trick twice. Much like its first season, HBO’s acclaimed comedy-drama begins with a corpse on the grounds of an idyllic resort property before flashing back to show us the week leading up to this mystery person’s demise. Also like its first season, it’s all a ruse: Sure, you will find out who died, but if you’re expecting a thriller, or a mystery, you would be mistaken. Instead, it’s mostly focused on the foibles and self-destructive behaviors of a group of wealthy vacationers at the eponymous White Lotus luxury hotel as they drink, spend, game, and fuck their way toward some kind of oblivion. Someone will die by the end, but the first victim is always you. The White Lotus always murders you, the viewer, first. With cringe.
The White Lotus is an anthology series, each one focused around a different location and cast. The first season was set in Hawaii; the new season, which premiered this weekend, unfolds in Sicily. While two characters overlap, the hotel chain is all that links the seasons together, and each can be enjoyed independently of the other. So far, both of them are wildly uncomfortable.
Consider some of the people and altercations introduced in the new season of The White Lotus:
- The Di Grasso men: Dominic (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli), his Stanford grad son Albie (Adam DiMarco), and his boorish father Bert (F. Murray Abraham). The trio appear to arrive for some cross-generational father-son bonding, but their vacation seems to be papering over the collapse of Dom’s family — his wife bailed on the trip and seems to hate him, and Dom has hired Lucia (Simona Tabasco), a local sex worker, to discreetly spend the night with him — a secret The White Lotus hotel is simply too small to keep.
- Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) Babcock along with Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) Spiller: Cam and Ethan are former college roommates that have nothing in common anymore, but decided to go on vacation together with their wives. Immediately the two become entangled in a tug-of-war of performative masculinity, as the newly rich Ethan tries to pretend he’s comfortable with Cameron’s alpha-bro rich boy mindset, and as Harper struggles to understand why they’re there and Cameron casually harasses her, stripping naked when they have a moment alone.
- Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and Greg (Jon Gries), the only returning characters from season 1, arrive in Sicily as their happy romance from the previous season has started to sour. In their suite, a perpetual cycle of discontent fueled by Tanya’s narcissism and Greg’s neglect claims a third victim in Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), Tanya’s assistant who is forced to remain out of sight during their stay.
This can sound exhausting, and it would be, if it wasn’t so damn funny. Creator Mike White is a writer known for both his history as a Survivor contestant (two of his fellow contestants, Kara Kay and Angelina Keeley, cameo in the premiere), his tremendously empathetic storytelling (his previous HBO series, Enlightened, is a beautifully contemplative work) and his withering sense of humor (“It’s a penis, not a sunset!” one character exclaims when decrying the appearance of his genitals).
All three of these aspects are present in The White Lotus: Even at their most detestable, when they’re dragging down everyone around them, the characters never seem to be written from a place of disdain, deserving as they may be. In a way, it makes their downfalls that much more tragic, satisfying, or damning. Happiness is right there: in the partner they brought with them, their family members, the beautiful locale they are lucky enough to spend time in. Yet they choose to look away, and we cringe because we knew they would.
In The White Lotus, vacationing is a revealing act. It’s what happens when people set out to consume a place, and that place ends up consuming them. This is why it’s important that it’s a story centered on extremely wealthy people: The money is an accelerant, like kerosene on tinder. Through this perfect vacation, they find themselves, as that one Stars song goes, setting themselves ablaze simply because there’s nothing left to burn.