There’s nothing quite like a nice vacation. Just hope that, if you ever book a beach getaway, Mike White isn’t scripting it.
The supremely talented comedian, writer and director (“Enlightened“) is back on HBO with “The White Lotus” (premiering Sunday, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★★½ out of four), a biting new miniseries about the wealthy – and the staffers who serve them – at an exclusive Hawaiian resort. For fans of White’s deathly sharp comedy, “Lotus” is a triumphant, deliriously funny satire of the privileged classes against a gorgeous backdrop. For those who don’t know White well, it’s an exuberant comedy that might introduce them to his other work, such as Laura Dern’s HBO vehicle “Enlightened.”
“Lotus” begins with a mystery: At the luxurious White Lotus resort, someone has died. We don’t know who and we don’t know how. The series flashes back to the days leading up to the death, introducing a colorful cast of characters (nearly all of them despicable) who could be the victim or killer.
But quickly, the murder mystery becomes less important as the events at the Lotus unfold. The guests include Connie Britton as Nicole, a tech CEO attempting to wrangle her hapless husband (Steve Zahn) and awful teen children Olivia and Quinn (Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger) and Olivia’s friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady); Jennifer Coolidge as the emotionally unstable Tanya, on vacation to scatter her mother’s ashes; and Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy asnewlyweds Rachel and Shane (Molly Shannon hilariously shows up in later episodes, although naming her character might spoil the surprise of her entrance). Working at the hotel are chameleon manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell, “Insecure”), each of whom is taken advantage of, extolled and belittled by the guests.
What happens in “Lotus” isn’t as important as how the characters react to it, a trick at which White excels. Bartlett, an Australian actor with a nice-guy face and hidden depths of comedic potential, is the series’ true standout. A feud that develops between Armond and spoiled rich boy Shane is among the most entertaining and shocking of events, and watching Armond attempt a smiling, pleasant façade as Shane acts more outrageously is sublime.
But everyone is putting in exceptional work. Daddario, relegated to roles as arm candy and mistresses for much of her career, finally gets a chance to step forward with something meatier, playinga confident young woman swept away by a wealthy, handsome beau before she realized he wants to control her. Coolidge, best known for her roles in “American Pie” and “Legally Blonde,” also does some of her best work as insecure and needy Tanya, who latches onto kind Belinda, oblivious to the consequences of being the financially powerful person in a relationship.
Britton and Zahn are surprisingly effective foils as a flaky career woman who isn’t interested in breaking any glass ceiling that doesn’t involve her, and her pushover husbandwho veers from one emotional extreme to the next. With its teen characters, White and the “Lotus” writers understand something that few other modern series do: That while technology and clothes might have changed with Generation Z, teenagers are still mostly just dumb jerks.
Amid the Hawaiian high jinks and gorgeous backdrops, “Lotus” goes deeper into its dissection of wealth inequality, and is blisteringly critical of all involved, no matter how well-intentioned. When idealistic Paula thinks she can help a native Hawaiian bellboy she’s crushing on, it goes disastrously wrong in a way that conveniently doesn’t harm her. White may hate the odious oligarchy of wealth he portrays, but he isn’t naive enough to suggest that the powerful will ever be punished for their misdeeds.
“Lotus” may be cynical, but it is not depressingly so. The brilliance in the series is its balance: never too cringeworthy, too shocking, too slapstick. It’s the Goldilocks level of just right, and enormously entertaining for all six episodes.
But it might make you think twice about visiting Hawaii.