The White Lotus is back – with awful rich people, unsatisfying sex and Jennifer Coolidge. What’s not to love?
The Emmy-winning drama returns for a second season, now relocated to Sicily. It’s packed with the same complex relationship dynamics and let’s face it: you’re going to watch
Sat 29 Oct 2022 02.00 EDT
You do not need Britain’s greatest TV previewer to tell you to watch the new series of The White Lotus (Monday, 9pm, Sky Atlantic) Come on, zoom out: you are reading TV coverage in the Guardian. There’s no way you’re not already excited for an intricately spun, coolly observed, wealth-puncturing, class-unveiling hotel-based farce – an anthology series, no less! – with the broad and adult remit that being an HBO vehicle allows. It will be smart without telling you anything you can’t figure out yourself, you will see at least one actual human breast, and Jennifer Coolidge is back, tottering about, aggravating the concept of gravity every time she stands up. So far, so perfect.
We’re in Sicily, then; specifically Taormina, behind the purring threat of a volcano and near the same village where Michael Corleone took refuge in The Godfather. History! It’s right here, in the soil and in the murals and in the stone busts of long-forgotten courtiers. If the broad theme of the first series was “colonialism”, then the second’s focus is the great Italian tradition of “sex”, either having it or not having it, or feeling guilty about it or not feeling guilty about it, or seeing how many people you can have it with at once.
Jennifer Coolidge is not having it, being in the petty, squabbling stage of an early third marriage with the returning Greg (Jon Gries). Her assistant, Unpregnant’s Haley Lu Richardson, is weighing up whether to have the frantic, sheet-clutching holiday version of it with a charming bad boy or the “I adore you!” missionary you get from a safe little Stanford graduate. Aubrey Plaza is not really having it with her newly minted husband, Giri/Haji’s Will Sharpe, but next door she can hear his old college buddy Theo James dumbly having it with his perfect Stepford wife Meghann Fahy. (Their four-way dynamic is one of the show’s best. The deep truth of The White Lotus is that no matter how much you spend on a holiday, it’s still possible to have a really bad time.)
F Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco play three generations of the same family who have wildly different feelings of guilt and peace about the act itself, and are all too consumed with that energy to really have anything to say to each other among the ruins and splendour. This might be one of the last documentations of a sexual old guard, the era that runs from the Updikean affairs of the 70s up to the #MeToo movement of 2017: what sex looks like now, in an era when fluid identities are mainstream, is very different, and we’re probably too close to it happening for a premium TV series to make good jokes about it. Wait 20 years and, sure, maybe furries will get their White Lotus. But not before then.
One of the highlights of the first series was those complex, awkward, interesting and still-moving relationship dynamics that have never really been wound up and whirred at each other on screen before: a rich dad tries to bond with his weird teenage son, two teenage girls put an unseen crack in their to-the-end best friendship, a wealthy mummy’s boy ruins his honeymoon by unashamedly being himself, Jennifer Coolidge sobs during a massage. The second series has the same precariously balanced plates – the married couple foursome are primed to explode from the second they step off the boat; the harried hotel manager is going to do something inexplicable to tip the whole schooner over; the two troublemaker sex workers running around the hotel are bolts of chaos in an already stormy sea; one of the three generations of men who can’t understand each other is going to end up dead, I’m sure of it – and I’m confident it will all lead to an enjoyably woozy ending.
That said, the early episodes take a while to get going. There’s enough of the first series’s dark, looming mood – the Renaissance remix of the theme tune really sets the tone – and the creeping fact that something is going to happen to keep you constantly on edge. The ending of season one divided opinion, something creator Mike White (who played Ned Schneebly in School of Rock, by the way – yes, this is my favourite fact to drop at parties) has acknowledged, and the early scene-setting of series two seems more like it’s preparing for a satisfying finale that doesn’t inspire an angry Vulture column than a wildly entertaining ride. But this is all academic: you are already going to watch The White Lotus, aren’t you? Come on, zoom out.