Nobody captures the emptiness of wealth like HBO. Regardless of genre, no other network is quite so committed to centering the lives of the rich and dissatisfied, from “Succession” to “The Gilded Age” to “House of the Dragon” to “The White Lotus,” the latter of which is back for another season because, just like the ruling class, these shows are firmly assured of their place in the world.
The geography of “The White Lotus” has shifted from Hawaii to Sicily for Season 2, but the setting remains the same: A luxury five-star hotel with its high thread count linens and gleaming surfaces, filled to the gills with bored and restless guests.
Returning is the daffy heiress played by Jennifer Coolidge (who won an Emmy last month for her performance in Season 1; this time out, it’s as if she were cast in a more heightened and clownish show than everyone else) along with the everyman she fell for (Jon Gries) who is now her unhappy husband, wincing at her very presence.
A baseline of misery defines all the relationships here, including two young couples traveling together. The guys knew each other in college. One became an obnoxious finance bro (Theo James) with a wife (Meghann Fahy) whose sunny disposition artfully covers up the quietly glamorous torment of her life with this handsome louse. The nerdier of the college pals (Will Sharpe) has leveled up, recently selling his company for millions and is maybe looking to finally “belong” to the circles his old roomie runs in, whereas his serious-minded labor lawyer wife (Aubrey Plaza) is openly skeptical and wary of their companions.
Also at the hotel are three generations of men who are in Sicily to connect very superficially with their roots. They are: An aging but defiant scoundrel (F. Murray Abraham) who refuses to acknowledge he was a terrible husband and father; his son (Michael Imperioli) who is a Hollywood big shot who is morose because his own propensity for cheating has rendered his marriage irreparable; and the naive guy fresh out of Stanford (Adam DiMarco) who is mildly disgusted by both his father and grandfather and awkwardly hoping to find a romance of his own.
There are also a pair of young sex workers who hang around the hotel (Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco, both given surface-level roles that don’t even have the whiff of back story the other characters at least get). The hotel’s high-strung manager (Sabrina Impacciatore) isn’t above playing favorites with her staff in a way that edges ever so close to sexual harassment. And there’s an additional American guest (Haley Lu Richardson) who has no money of her own but is there as the depressed and completely superfluous assistant to Coolidge’s character.
Occasionally these different groups intersect — primarily through the young escorts — but to what end? The show is often mislabeled as satire, but where is the class analysis? Where is even the suggestion that a good deal of manual labor goes into all those luxe trappings?
Notably, the show renders the housekeeping staff invisible. Underpaid and overworked, hotel maids see it all — and are tasked with cleaning it. And yet “The White Lotus” is studiously uninterested in any of this. If you’re in search of a counterbalance, may I recommend “The Chambermaid,” the 2018 Mexican film that puts the backbreaking and sometimes dehumanizing work of these employees front and center, while also — yes — fileting the self-involved and appalling guests at an upscale hotel. The film is fascinating in the way it deftly handles many of the same themes that “The White Lotus” can only pretend to broach.
So what does “The White Lotus” ultimately have to say? That rich people are terrible? Are we supposed to be shocked? Amused?
Even if you take the show strictly on the basis of its human drama, it still comes up empty. The relationships here have fissures not because it’s challenging to cohabitate or connect with another person, but because no one even likes each other. It’s such a weirdly simplistic portrayal of interpersonal dynamics.
But the visuals, they are first-class! I was particularly taken by a dissolve bridging two scenes, when the image of a lotus in a pond transforms into the shiny marble floor of the hotel. I don’t know if this attention to detail makes it good television so much as absent-mindedly enjoyable in the way that thumbing through Architectural Digest is absent-mindedly enjoyable. For a brief moment, you’ve been invited into this inner sanctum as if you, too, are a guest at The White Lotus resort.
It is a fantasia of wealth and misery — forever intertwined — but is an incomplete world populated by incomplete characters. That presents a challenge for the ensemble — some of whom are able to fill in the gaps and some of whom are sabotaged by these underwritten roles.
Plaza is the standout, and not just because she sees these phonies for who they are (it’s tempting to like her just for that; she’s the closest thing to an audience surrogate) but because her character is so overt in verbalizing her thoughts. She’s a fully realized person, even if you can’t quite make out why she’s on this trip or even in this marriage. Plaza’s intensely suspicious, deadpan response to everything that’s happening around her feels almost electric, compared with the internalized passive-aggression of her husband and the two frenemies with whom they’re traveling.
Fahy (who was so terrific in “The Bold Type”) finds plenty of interesting layers to play here as well, even if the role is as stale as they come. “Italy’s just so romantic, you’re gonna die,” she says to fellow sunbathers on the beach in the opening moments of the season and this setup is nearly identical in foreboding to that of the first season. You know what’s coming. Moments later, a corpse is discovered floating in the water, and then we flashback to the events of a week earlier.
Despite each season beginning with an unexplained death, “The White Lotus” has never had designs on being a murder mystery, which is emblematic of how the show is both underwritten and overwritten. Nobody has a real conversation; they say things at each other as if lobbing verbal tennis balls over a net, which is maybe why it all sounds so trite.
Even as it skewers these people, the show is too in love with the idea of being rich to really consider the rot at its core. That would be too, what … distasteful? It’s a comedy of bad manners that hopes you don’t stop and think about anything that might threaten the status quo. Eat the rich? Hardly. Let’s dine with them. Then again, show creator Mike White and the TV executives to whom he answers are all part of this elite tax bracket, so to expect them to examine, even in a high-toned comedic context, the true savagery of the wealth gap rather than this pixilated narcotic — well, that would be like waiting for turkeys to vote for Christmas.
Except that an excess of wealth does not a fulfilling life make, which is why the rich are forever chasing status markers and buying more and more stuff. What if a show actually saw through some of that and challenged the status quo? (“Loot” starring Maya Rudolph on Apple TV+ maybe gets the closest).
I’m not sure how to explain the success of “The White Lotus” in its first outing except to wonder if audiences just really wanted to be on this vacation as well, smirking along with Mike White at the ridiculousness of the overindulged, while also craving their lives. Season 2 offers the same sort of mental getaway.
The rich keep getting richer, laughing all the way to the bank. Your only option, the show so insistently suggests, is to laugh along with them — and pay a monthly subscription for the pleasure while you’re at it.
“The White Lotus” Season 2 — 1.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: 8 p.m. Sundays on HBO (and streaming on HBO Max)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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