“People have been coming for me my whole life,” sighs honeymooner Shane (Jake Lacy) to his new bride Rachel (Alexandra Daddario). “I’m just playing the hand I was dealt. Like, yeah, it’s a great hand, but that’s not my fault.”
This is just one of innumerable moments in The White Lotus, so acutely observed as to be almost painful, where creator Mike White’s characters engage in high-level mental gymnastics to turn their obvious advantages - money, status, skin colour - into disadvantages.
The six-part series is set in an upmarket holiday resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui, a heaven colonised by a hellish cohort of wealthy guests, whose sense of entitlement is inversely proportional to their self-awareness. The put-upon hotel staff, meanwhile, are expected to be “generic, pleasant, interchangeable helpers,” as put by hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), whose journey from affable employee-of-the-month type to man in freefall over the course of the show’s taut one-week window is quite remarkable to behold.
“Watching [the guests] every night makes me want to gouge my eyes out,” he trills cheerily in the penultimate episode. After several hours in their company, you will certainly sympathise – but it’s impossible to look away from what might just be the best pitch-black comedy of the year. The show is primarily a series of character studies, but there is also the small matter of an unidentified dead body, introduced Big Little Lies-style in the opening moments before we rewind to the start of the holiday.
Shane, a cosseted man-baby who still wears his Ivy League college merch years after graduating, is convinced that Armond is “gaslighting” him into accepting an inferior room (Bartlett manages to imbue the question “would you like a second toilet?” with a passive-aggression so delicious it almost sings). His desperate mission to ascend to his rightful place in the Pineapple Suite swallows up his honeymoon and soon degenerates into all-out psychological warfare. This is, you imagine, perhaps the first time he has been thwarted in his Waspy life, and Lacy’s performance is all the more ruthlessly effective for going drastically against type - Shane is the evil twin of the charming, easy-going bros he usually plays.
No wonder Shane’s wife, a freelance journalist who isn’t used to smoothing off life’s edges with piles of money, is having second thoughts. Rachel might belong to the age of clickbait (her husband rather uncharitably describes her work as “disposable garbage”) but Daddario carries her growing realisation that she is expected to be a smiling trophy wife akin to her mother-in-law (Molly Shannon) like an Edith Wharton heroine.
Also holidaying at the resort are tech CFO girlboss Nicole (Connie Britton), her beta husband Mark (Steve Zahn), college-age daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and aimless teenage son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) plus Olivia’s friend from college, Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Each family dinner plays out in exquisite shades of awkwardness. Berating the girls for ignoring Quinn, Nicole interprets their behaviour (there’s the mental gymnastics again) as a symptom of the world’s lack of “sympathy” for “straight white young” men. “In a way, they’re the underdogs right now,” she says, prompting a well-deserved eye-roll from Paula. “I think he’s going to be OK, Nicole,” she says, with studied neutrality. One of the only black guests at the resort, she is also painfully aware that her fancy holiday is being bankrolled by a family she finds appalling. She is not immune from White’s scalpel though: when she incites her love interest, hotel worker Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekuman), to take a major gamble that goes catastrophically wrong, her own set of assumptions are brutally exposed.
Then there is Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya, a self-described “straight up alcoholic lunatic” with plans to dispose of her late mother’s ashes in the Hawaiian ocean, who quickly latches on to empathetic spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). It is obvious that the outlandishly kaftan-ed Tanya is using her new friend as a useful but ultimately disposable form of emotional support, yet it’s testament to White’s skillful writing and Coolidge’s gorgeous performance that their relationship can be both parasitic and genuine at the same time. Coolidge can turn anything into a comic moment, from the pronunciation of her character’s surname to a tearful but deeply unflattering eulogy delivered on a yacht, but she plays Tanya with such deep sympathy that she never becomes a figure of fun.
Dreadful rich people make for brilliant TV (as The White Lotus’s HBO stablemate Succession has proved so decisively) but it is rare to see their privileges and prejudices skewered with such relentless precision. White’s characters can be monstrous, but they are so carefully wrought (down to the paperbacks that they’re pretending to read on their sun loungers) that they also feel painfully human.
A second series, set at a different branch of the White Lotus franchise in an as-yet-unannounced location, has just been commissioned. Thank God – because this is one holiday from hell you’ll actually want to relive again and again.
All episodes available from August 16 on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW