As in season one, this instalment begins with a suspicious death, the victim’s identity a mystery to us. The story then leaves that behind, flashing back to the guests’ arrival. Created with White’s typical shrewd balance, they are people we are intrigued by, and might even like, although we can easily judge their abysmal behaviour.
This season is less caustic than the last, at least in the five episodes HBO made available for review, and less focused on class, but it offers more secrets and lies. Those themes play out strongly among two very different couples vacationing together, the show’s truest and most trenchant characters. Will Sharpe is winning as the modest, low-key Ethan, and Aubrey Plaza sharply defines his tightly wound wife, Harper. Theo James exudes charm as the super-confident Cameron, and Meghann Fahy blithely captures his wife, Daphne. Theo has a point when he tells Daphne that Harper is “a pill”, but Harper may have a point of her own in suspecting that Theo and Daphne’s blissful kissy-face marriage is a veneer. White entangles them all in mind games about truth and fidelity.
The three-generational Sicilian-American family, the Di Grassos, provides the most comedy. F Murray Abraham is the patriarch, Bert, a relentless flirt at 80. His son, Dom, is a Hollywood player whose affairs have earned his absent wife’s fury. Michael Imperioli plays this remorseful, weak-willed clod with down-to-earth naturalism in what may be his best work since Christopher on The Sopranos. Dom’s son, Albie (Adam DiMarco) is an earnest Stanford University grad. The series’ hilarious moments come when the three fumble through a discussion of sex, and when they visit the tourist-trap location where the Sicilian segments of The Godfather were shot. To his father’s and grandfather’s horror, Albie goes off on an explanation of why the overrated film plays into men’s nostalgia for “the salad days of the patriarchy”. The actors’ impeccable comic timing makes you believe they are a family.
Coolidge and White once more brilliantly define Tanya, who is sad, lonely (despite being married) and pitiable, but thoughtlessly callous toward people she considers the help. Haley Lu Richardson makes Tanya’s assistant, Portia, the most realistic character, a young woman with an edge of desperation about her future. In tears, she tells a friend on the phone, “I feel like I’ve just been stuck at home, just doom-scrolling on my phone the last three years”. White includes another nod at a world shaped by Covid and other blights when Harper says she has trouble sleeping because of “everything that’s going on in the world”. Daphne blankly asks what she means, and the appalled Harper explains, “I don’t know, just, like the end of the world”. Well put, but White leaves it at that. Real-life disasters never intrude on this engaging show.
While the guests seemed hermetically sealed inside the Hawaiian resort in season one, here they roam around (partly due to fewer Covid restrictions during shooting.) There are trips to an extravagant villa in Noto, another extravagant villa in Palermo, and the grand opera house, where we get a snippet of Madame Butterfly, until the series begins to feel like a tourist video. It’s just a matter of time before someone sings That’s Amore, but White savvily uses the song with a sad irony, a hint of the darker underside of The White Lotus that has yet to emerge.
The White Lotus season 2 premieres on HBO on 30 October.
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