All is not what it seems at the White Lotus, the setting and namesake of HBO’s new show about a luxury resort that can cater to your every need. The problem is, as the show explores, the well-to-do vacationers at the White Lotus don’t really know what they need. They’re trying to scratch an existential itch with a nice getaway, and the results are decidedly mixed. And the staff? Well, they’re not doing much better themselves.
Almost everyone is familiar with the idea of a vacation leaving you more drained and frustrated than you were when you started. The White Lotus navigates that idea deftly, showing how poorly we understand what we’re looking for when we’re trying to relax, and the ways those misunderstandings bump up against the people we’re with in ways small and, sometimes, very big.
For example, high-powered CEO Nicole (Connie Britton) and her husband Mark (Steve Zahn) are trying to give their teen kids the vacation of a lifetime. Mark is fretting about a troubling medical diagnosis but Nicole is determined to help everyone look on the bright side, even if that means not being entirely truthful about the dark side.
Meanwhile, newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) are celebrating their whirlwind romance and marriage. He’s the son of a wealthy New York socialite who put him on easy street, and she’s a budding freelance journalist hungry to break into the industry. So when a honeymoon opportunity lands for her to profile a Burning Man influencer, the wrong kind sparks start to fly.
There’s also Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge, fantastic) who can’t quite figure out how to grieve the loss of her mother until she has an almost spiritual connection with the White Lotus masseuse (Natasha Rothwell), a new staff trainee (Jolene Purdy) trying to hide the fact that she’s pregnant and so on.
The show’s tone is a slippery one, with funny moments that feel sad and sad moments that make you laugh. There’s a small mystery playing in the background, since the show’s opening sequence makes it clear that not everyone survives this season of The White Lotus. It’s not quite a satire, although the rich and privileged definitely get their fair share of pokes. The show’s most cutting observations could apply to almost anyone, of any tax bracket.
Please note, the trailer contains some profanity.
The series was created by Mike White, who was also behind HBO’s underrated masterpiece Enlightened, and he’s got a keen understanding of the small ways we all struggle to be honest with ourselves. The guests at White Lotus think they’re unwinding and doing something good for themselves, but they’re creating just as many problems as they’re solving. The lie to themselves (and sometimes others) to avoid uncomfortable truths. They struggle to advocate for themselves, putzing around with passive aggressive “if that’s what you want”s and building a mountain of resentment with a timebomb attached to it. They also struggle to see what others really want from them, so focused on their own ideas of what their vacation should be that they end up treating everyone else like actors in a play they’re trying to direct.
The truth is, we’re pretty bad at leisure. Maybe we’ve spent so much time talking about the inherent dignity of hard work that we’ve never really thought about the dignity of rest, and what meaningful rest might actually entail for us. So we just throw money at the most expensive getaway we can find (which, for most of us, would not be in the same stratosphere as the White Lotus guests) and trust it to do the trick. No wonder we need a vacation from our vacation.
Earlier this year, RELEVANT spoke with author and teacher John Eldredge on what he calls the “cost-joy ratio.” It’s his neat system for making sure the things he does to relax are actually relaxing. “You need to get more joy than what it’s costing you,” he said. “So blowing a ton of money on something you can’t afford is going to give you some joy, but three days later, you’re going to be so filled with regret and panic, and now you’re facing these payments you can’t make. You got the cost-joy ratio totally out of whack.”
That would solve part of the problem for most of the White Lotus guests. But the real problem isn’t that these people need a vacation. It’s that they need genuinely connect, with the people they love and with themselves. A perfect getaway might seem like the ideal place to do just that but as the show reminds us, there’s no such thing as a perfect getaway.