Different Paradise, Different Guests, Same Horrid Behavior
The White Lotus Returns For A Sublime Second Season
Last year, I was part of the early cheering section for the first season of HBO’s sublime The White Lotus, Mike White’s extraordinary limited series about the title resort in Hawaii featuring the worst aspects of the one percent and the beleaguered staff that had to deal with them. For reasons that made sense at the time, I gave the series the equivalent of an honorable mention on my Best of 2021 list but did not list it among the ten best of the year. In hindsight, my decision to list David E. Kelley’s collective work of 2021 was the most deeply flawed choice by comparison: Big Sky was extraordinary that season, but Nine Perfect Strangers was far more flawed. I was happier to hear that The White Lotus was renewed for a second season than Strangers was.
It took a while for the love for The White Lotus to reach critical mass: Murray Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge got more than their share of recognition but it was until the HCA TV Award nominations came out in June that it finally began to get the love it deserved. Did the entire cast deserve to get all those Emmy nominations? I’ve been debated that since July, particularly as it did seem to come at the expense of so many other great series such as The Dropout and Maid? But all that said the ensemble was, each in their own way, pitch perfect in their roles. (I’m still on the fence when it comes to Sydney Sweeney, though.) And even though I thought Dopesick and The Dropout were extraordinary series, my heart was happy when the series took home ten Emmys this September. Part of it was due to my desire to see Mike White, a talent I have admired for years finally get the recognition he deserves from some major award show. And a larger part of it was due to the fact that, with the sole exception of Big Little Lies, I can’t remember a single limited series that has dominated the nominations, much less the awards, whose main argument for being was to have fun. Yes, there was a message at just how awful the truly rich are on vacation as they are in society, but you were laughing too hard most of the time at everybody — Steve Zahn’s ridiculous awkwardness around his family, Murray Bartlett’s trying to remain professional in his war with Jake Lacy, everything Jennifer Coolidge did — to notice the message until later. Ever since White decided — well before the awards started coming — to give the show a second season, albeit as an anthology I have been waiting with bated breath to see what happen next. Last Sunday, the second season began and if anything, it’s starting off even stronger than the first one.
This White Lotus is set in Rome, so while there are still glamorous beaches and scenery, there is also a very great amount of shopping and resorts nearby as well as something that was very conspicuous absent from the first one — prostitutes and sexual energy in general. You might remember that for all the glamor that was going on in the first season, most of the guests were not having sex, not even the couple on their honeymoon and Armond ended up getting more action than most of his guests. From the opening credits White makes it very clear there’s going to be a lot more sexual action in the season, and while some might find this exploitive, I think most people will find it more realistic. If we want to see rich people behaving badly, we want to see it in the bedroom and this season is more than willing to oblige.
Just as in the opening season, the second starts with all the guests arriving on a giant boat. There’s two couples who are on a group vacation: Cameron and Daphne (Theo James and Meghann Fahy) silicon valley billionaires and Cameron’s college roommate Ethan (Will Sharpe) and his very prickly wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza!). There’s the Di Grasso men, grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham) his bitter son, Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and his son Albie (Adam). And as promised, Tanya is back, who is meeting her husband Greg here (Jon Gries, clearly showing the experience of living with Tanya) and her assistant, Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). Lucia is the new concierge (a sublime Simone Tabasco) and she is clearly made of different material than Armond was. Armond was capable of putting up a front even as things began to spiral. Lucia doesn’t even bother with from the moments the guests she arrived, and even though she’s younger than Armond, you see she has infinitely less patience with even going through the motions with the staff or the guests. There are also two women named Mia and Valentina, who are clearly prostitutes but still have enough illusions to think there’s upward mobility. They’re watching looking for sugar daddies.
In the opening scenes of Season 1, most of the guests seemed to be here to have a good time or blow off steam. From the beginning of Season 2, most of the guests clearly seem to be having trouble through the motions. The only people who seem happy all the time are Cameron and Daphne and Harper doesn’t believe it for a second. (“No couple doesn’t fight,” she tells her husband.) But then this particular couple doesn’t seem to exist in reality: they happily tell their friends they don’t watch the news because it’s so stressful, Daphne cheerfully tells them she loves watching shows where wives murder their husbands, and they don’t even seem to have respect for other millionaires in Europe. Harper wants to do good, and they seem to mock her in public and berate her in private. It’s pretty clear from the start that Cameron is trying to seduce Harper, mainly because he sees her as a challenge rather than he finds her attractive. At this point in the series Harper seems the most grounded character of the bunch, but as we’ve learned from the show, first impressions can be deceived.
Dominic’s problems are far greater: his marriage has self-destructed because of a sex addiction; his wife has no use for him and their daughter hasn’t come on the trip. Bert has come on this trip to find his Sicilian roots, but almost from the beginning he goes out of his way to blame Dom for the separation in the worst way possible. He used the mythological story of Hades and Demeter to claim that nothing Bert has done could be as bad, admonishes his son for having affairs and when Dom reminds of his own affairs, Bert laughs them off as ‘peccadillos!” Dom is clearly a weak man, he has no problem picking up one of the girls in the first episode and when they openly say they want to use him as a sugar daddy, he agrees very quickly and can barely put up much of a front when Lucia, justifiably, calls him on it. “The three of them will be sleeping in your bed?” she said when he says they will be staying in his room. He protests loudly and by the end of last night’s episode is having a threesome with them.
As for Tanya, we know full too well how incapable of change she is, and you almost feel sympathy for the lack of patience Greg shows with her, particularly when Portia is right there. (“It’s not like she’ll be in our bed!” she protests.) Greg is protesting about her weight from the beginning, is hiding secret phone calls and when he tells her that he has to go to Colorado, and they have a fight: he calls her on all of her bad behavior, and naturally she deflects it on Greg. You can’t exactly blame him for having an affair given our last experience with Tanya, we know how much oxygen she takes up every time she enters a room or anywhere.
At this point our sympathy is clearly with Portia who came on this trip and now has to spend it keeping out of sight not to upset her boss. She’s fragile from the beginning and clearly sees the only way she can make some movement if she sticks this out. (If you remember Tanya last offer to help someone, we all know how naïve Portia is.) She finds herself on a date with Albie, who says he has gone on this trip with his father, who he clearly has issues with, because he’s the peacemaker in the family. He doesn’t want to end up like his dad (and given what we’ve seen of his grandfather, that’s probably something Dom once wanted.) Portia also clearly gives some more backstory to Tanya, saying theirs a possibility her father abused her and given how badly her mother treated her, that does give us some insight into her. (Though given how Jennifer Coolidge leans into it, you have a hard time holding on to it.)
Now to the opening, Just as in Season 1, we open with another dead body at the White Lotus and one clear example of who it isn’t: Daphne goes on a swim and discovers a floating corpse. There’s a big twist, though: by the time Lucia gets there, a frantic concierge is telling her that there are ‘many’ bodies there. So once again the question is, who’s dead? The only person who seems safe is Tanya because White has made it clear if there is a third season, she’s going to have another vacation. So who is it? Did Daphne give in to her murder porn fantasy and kill her husband? Did Dom finally go too far with his sex addiction (HBO series don’t tend to end well for Michael Imperioli’s characters)? Did Bert, who’s already fallen over a deck, fall off a cliff and end up drowning? There are always a lot of possibilities, and as we saw last season, White has a way of pulling the rug out from under you at the last possible moment.
There’s a good chance, given the advance notice, that the second season of The White Lotus will get praise and massive nominations from awards shows starting in the next few months. I’m personally rooting for Abraham and Plaza, both of whom have labored in masterpieces in Peak TV and never got a win (or in Plaza’s case, even a nomination). I would also love to see Coolidge back in the ranks again and it would be fitting for Imperioli to get another nomination now that he’s come home. Perhaps it would be excessive for the show to get as many nominations and awards as it did the first time out, but then again, isn’t excess exactly what The White Lotus is about? In the meantime, at the end of another year of darkness, pull of a chair, have a nice Chianti, and watch Jennifer Coolidge try to ride a Vespa. Just as last year, we need fun more than ever, and White will always provide it. I hope there is a third season and we end up going somewhere just as exotic and fun. We all need a vacation, even if it’s with people we don’t want to go on vacation with.
My score: 5 stars.