It is a measure of just how good the first series of The White Lotus was – the writing, the blending of murder mystery and sharp satire, the performances, the direction, the gorgeous photography even under lockdown conditions – that although people do vividly remember the turd being curled out into a guest’s suitcase by a man driven to the edge of tolerance, they remember it as only part of a flawlessly executed whole.
Now the show’s creator, Mike White, is back with another carefully curated batch of overprivileged guests at his mercy. This time they are being cared for by the staff – and sex workers – at the White Lotus hotel in Sicily instead of Hawaii, and White’s beady moral eye is on sexual rather than racial politics. The writing is as dense and layered as ever, the plotting is immaculate and the viewers’ sympathies – or loathings – are never allowed to rest in one place for too long. The characters may be there to unwind, but White is not one to let his audience relax.
We open, as the original Lotus did, with a dead body, which – again – won’t be identified to us until the end. This one drifts past a guest having a last swim in the ocean before her flight home. Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the hotel manager, is quickly called by underling Rocco. “It’s fine,” she says, taking in the scene with relief. “The ocean is not hotel property.” He then breaks the news to her and us that other guests have also been found dead. “How many?” asks a horrified Valentina. “A few?” says Rocco, uncertainly. This is why he will always be an underling.
We then flash back to a week earlier, and meet the new arrivals coming in to land at the beautiful coastal resort. They include arrogant financier Cameron (Theo James) and his sweet, so-far-so-basic wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy). Cameron has brought his old college friend and nerd-made-good Ethan (Will Sharpe), a workaholic, and Ethan’s prickly wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza), an employment lawyer, as their guests. The interplay of the shifting dynamics between them – of power, class, intelligence, financial clout – provides some glorious scenes, as acutely written and played as they are painful. The foursome’s first dinner together, in which Harper and Ethan learn that their companions don’t watch the news (“You can’t obsess”) and Daphne isn’t sure whether she voted or not will surely be held up as a nonpareil example of how to do – well, everything – in screenwriting books and classes forevermore.
Then there are the three members of the Di Grasso family, here to steep themselves in their Sicilian heritage and to represent to us the three ages of man and the penis. Grandfather Bert (F Murray Abraham) spends his time flirting harmlessly/embarrassingly/harassingly (depending on your generation and point of view) with every young waitress he meets. Then there’s Dom (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli), whose wife and daughter have not accompanied him on the trip because they are (it is revealed in another beautifully written duologue between him and his unseen wife on the phone) seething about the latest of his infidelities. Albie (Adam DiMarco) is the conciliatory son, horrified by his grandfather’s behaviour but also at least as much by the idea that any woman should have to look “at an old man’s junk”. Bert doesn’t see the issue. “It’s not like it was ever beautiful anyway. It’s a penis, not a sunset.” At least some wisdom comes with age, even if adaptation to new sociosexual mores don’t.
Albie has his – respectful, nonpredatory, age-appropriate – eye on young Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), who is the personal assistant to a vastly rich, semi-monstrous, semi-heartbreaking return visitor to the White Lotus … Yes, it’s Tanya McQuoid, played by the inimitable Jennifer Coolidge this time with a slightly darker, more genuinely desperate edge to her irreducible chaos and selfishness. She is now married to sport fisher Greg (Jon Gries), her love interest from the end of season one, who has turned into something of a bully – critical of her weight, uninterested in her needs or desires, of which admittedly there are probably more than one person can reasonably be expected to meet. Did he indeed marry her for her money and is now allowing his contempt to show? Or does it have something to do with his terminal illness (of which, in the first episode, there is no actual mention)? Or is it more to do with whoever he is having whispered conversations with on his phone?
Add sex workers Mia (Beatrice Grannò) and Lucia (Simona Tabasco) to the mix and everything is set for as rich, complex and satisfying a comedy-drama as you could hope. Enjoy another five-star stay in this luxury place.
Episode one of The White Lotus airs on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Monday 31 October.