The most interesting parts of the first season of “The White Lotus” were the stories being told around the show’s edges. The intrigue came not from the stories about the rich and mostly white guests having a miserable week at a Hawaiian resort called the White Lotus, but from the ones about the long-suffering White Lotus employees and a cautionary tale about colonialism and exploitation.
Yet for the most part, they were only gestured at, never fully developed. For me, that made the show an emptier version of what could have been a much stronger installment in the “eat the rich” genre.
Season 2 of Mike White’s anthology series, which begins Sunday on HBO — the premier destination for “eat the rich” shows — follows a similar structure to the first season. While it began as a limited series, it’s easy to see why this became an anthology series. The first episode of the new season once again opens with the discovery of a dead body at a White Lotus resort (actually, multiple dead bodies), this time in Sicily. It then flashes back, chronologically tracking the tales of a new group of rich and mostly white vacationers, once again having a miserable week.
This time, there’s a bit more complexity and texture to the show, thanks in large part to a richer tapestry of characters. There are more characters who are on the outside looking in, so we’re not gazing as emptily as we were in the first season. In addition, the new season gradually starts to build out various segments of a story about toxic masculinity and gender politics, suggesting it might have more to say than it did before.
The Season 1 guests often felt like they fell into predictable categories and types: insufferable people dealing with largely petty problems. Now, several of the new characters are on the periphery of the show’s insular world, making it more intriguing to view the show through their lens. Among the best performances in the Aperol Spritz-filled new season is Aubrey Plaza as Harper, who has begrudgingly accompanied her husband Ethan (Will Sharpe) on a couples trip with Ethan’s college roommate Cameron (Theo James) and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy) .
Harper is not sure why Ethan and Cameron are friends: Cameron is more of a bro, in contrast to the more reserved Ethan. Harper and Ethan both come from more economically modest backgrounds, and therefore Harper views the wealthy Cameron and Daphne as entitled, vapid and fake. Ethan, who has recently become rich from selling his startup, agrees to some extent, but hangs out with them anyway.
“They don’t read. It’s like, what do they even talk about? Is that what happens when you’re rich for too long? Your brain just atrophies?” Harper asks him after the first day of the trip, when in conversation, they discover Cameron and Daphne don’t read the news and probably didn’t vote.
“It’s good to have, you know, different friends, I guess,” Ethan says.
But as Harper points out, she and Ethan, as the two mixed-race people in the group (something that perhaps could have been developed more), are Cameron and Daphne’s “white-passing diverse friends.”
At first, Harper has no interest in being part of the group, bringing a book to meals and trying to avoid sitting with Cameron and Daphne at the hotel’s breakfast buffet while Ethan goes on a morning run. Gradually, she plays along, turning her feigned enthusiasm into a game for her own amusement. In private, she mocks the couple and eventually uncovers some holes in their idyllic facade. Harper’s derision towards her travel companions and the trip, while also participating in it, mirrors our own viewing experience. We pooh-pooh the petty problems of the characters. But we can’t help but want to gaze at them.
The show’s gaze is much more interesting when it’s directed at characters like Harper, who are on the outside looking in. Another one of those characters is the beleaguered resort manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the Season 2 version of Armond (Murray Bartlett), who berates the staff for not keeping everything in tiptop shape. She is also unsuccessfully trying to keep local sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her friend, aspiring musician Mia (Beatrice Grannò), off the premises and away from the guests. However, as later episodes suggest, there’s more to Valentina than we think, and it’ll be interesting to see if we get more of her inner life and motivations as the season progresses.
Returning from Season 1 is Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, who is once again a lonely soul searching for emotional connection at another White Lotus resort. But it’s her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) who has the most interesting storyline. Tanya abandons Portia, leaving her to her own devices and allowing her to get a taste of a life that does not involve tending to her boss’s every need.
Portia strikes up a potential romance with Albie (Adam DiMarco). Albie is staying at the White Lotus with his philandering father Dom (Michael Imperioli) and grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham), on a family vacation to pay homage to their Sicilian roots. While many of the characters’ storylines circle around gender politics and toxic masculinity, those themes start to coalesce in the season’s third episode, when Albie, Dom and Bert go on a tour of various locations where “The Godfather” was filmed. I’m curious to see whether these themes become more concrete, and how they figure into the potentially murderous conclusion.
Similar to the first season, there are times when I wish the show had something sharper and more lacerating to say about these characters, even when it’s implied. The episodes are punctuated with ominous shots of waves lapping the shore. Like the sea, the show can glimmer while at times also revealing an emptiness underneath.
But still, there’s something tantalizing about the way “The White Lotus,” as well as many of the other “eat the rich” shows, involves the viewer. In my case, despite my continued ambivalence about the series, I flew through the first five episodes provided to critics. All that glitters is not gold. But we can’t help but gawk — and once we do, we can’t look away.
The second season of “The White Lotus” premieres Sunday at 9 pm ET on HBO and HBO Max.