Mike White’s genre of class comedy earns him the spot of the heir apparent to New Hollywood filmmakers Hal Ashby and Robert Altman.
I’m convinced that if actor and filmmaker Mike White made movies at a time different from today’s era of superhero blockbusters, audiences would recognize his name like Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood. From the friendship drama Chuck & Buck to the class comedy Beatriz at Dinner, his stories are that good. White’s genre of class comedy earns him the spot of the heir apparent to New Hollywood filmmakers Hal Ashby and Robert Altman if only studios still made class comedies.
Thankfully, it’s the golden age of television (again). While movie theaters remain relatively empty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fans of indie-minded stories lean towards premium channels and streaming platforms. That’s where arty audiences will find White and his latest project, the HBO six-episode limited series The White Lotus, which debuted on July 11. It’s White’s best work to date, the rare TV series that warrants multiple viewings.
Set at a luxurious Hawaiian resort named The White Lotus, resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) serve and squabble with wealthy guests. The resort customers include tech executive Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), their kids Quinn (Fred Hechinger), Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and Olivia’s tagalong friend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady).
The newlywed couple, Shane (Jake Lacey) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Tanya, a troubled woman (Jennifer Coolidge) looking to disperse her mother’s ashes in the sea, are fellow resort guests.
White, working with producers David Bernad, Nick Hall, and Mark Kamine, dives deep into the selfish behaviors and sad emotions fueling the tense dance between resort customers and staff and between individual guests. Free of slapstick and silliness, White makes full use of all six episodes to craft dynamic stories of privilege, race, and relationships. There’s a playful whodunnit involving a resort fatality at the heart of the story. It makes for a sly diversion from the wrong decisions and growing sadness spreading across the resort.
Familiar actors Connie Britton and Steve Zahn deliver the skillful performances we’ve come to expect over the years. Jennifer Coolidge usually appears in silly comedies. Alexandra Daddario is best known for her bombshell looks. Both actresses reveal emotional sides we’ve never seen before.
As Belinda, Natasha Rothwell brings calm to the resort misadventures as an empathetic staffer who befriends Tanya. Belinda is the opposite of her boss Armond who spirals into alcohol and drug abuse while battling Shane over a room mistake. Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady transform their teen mean girl characters into meaningful portrayals of misguided political correctness.
Every member of The White Lotus cast, whether experienced or emerging, rises thanks to White’s verbal and visual storytelling. They also benefit from White’s creative risk-taking. A John Waters-inspired poop scene in the climactic episode of the series will make you gasp. Is it too much? Maybe? That’s the joy of confident storytellers like Mike White. They’re willing to stretch for the benefit of the story.
News of distributor HBO renewing The White Lotus for a second season has fans predicting which characters return or not. I’m happy for a clean slate of hotel guests. I’m excited to watch what’s next from Mike White.