(Written and directed by Mike White) (HBO 2021)
“Eating the lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
… To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass.” (Tennyson, Song of the Lotos-Eaters)
We don’t know if Alfred’s weird poem informed the consciousness of Mike White’s weird satire but we like to think so. This 6 part series, a sort of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ meets ‘Fantasy Island,’ filmed at a swish resort in Hawaii, confirms that it’s not where you go but how you go that matters in life. Here we have an ensemble of well-to-do ne’r-do-wells descending on ‘The White Lotus’ for a week of sun, surf, fun and romance – guaranteed. Guaranteed by a staff that sets its bar high but doesn’t quite clear it – we’re not talking about Stevens in Remains of the Day, after all, but remains do feature – prominently.
There’s lashings of sex but very little romance. Newlyweds Shane and Rachel frolic but don’t really connect – since he’s an overprivileged and self-entitled mummy’s boor and she clings to her vocation as a struggling journalist even though she writes puff pieces and not very well at that. The Mossbacher family are diverging into their own private worlds, Mum as the default alpha patriarch, over-analyzing Dad bonding with son Quinn, both with arrested development; meantime spoilt daughter Olivia and her tag-along girlfriend Paula scoff at the world from behind their phones and their books on Nietzsche and Freud, managing to be woke and privileged simultaneously. There’s heaps of sun but not a lot of fun. Tanya is a bundle of haute psychosis symptoms who self-medicates and attaches herself to spa manager Belinda, in an opportunistic and parasitic fashion that damages and belittles them both. The various personas are beautifully done, and hence you never want to kill off anyone (okay, maybe Shane).
Bringing us to Shane’s bête noire, the undoubted star of the show, Armond. A manager whose every interaction with guests is a performance, Armond can barely manage himself, and once he falls off the wagon and into a pit of drugs and debauchery, not at all. Murray Bartlett gives us a complete embodiment of what Solzhenitsyn had in mind when he said, in The Gulag Archipelago, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Twenty years in the States seems to have altered Bartlett’s accent somewhat – he seems more Kiwi than Aussie as Armond – but it doesn’t matter. He is well nigh perfect as he descends à la Dante, in manner both comic and tragic. And unrepentant over his carnality, wrath and sullenness, as in The Inferno, he recalls the happy hour of his lost bliss in pain. A second series has been announced but unless they can work Armond into it, we don’t see how it can succeed.