First impressions: HBO’s The White Lotus is an understated representation of exaggerated comedy

The first episode of The White Lotus, the latest darkly comedic effort from the mind of Mike White (Enlightened), sets itself up as a more humorous Big Little Lies, offering a seasonal hook in the first few minutes that suggests the titular paradisal resort is anything but.

A stoic Shane (Jake Lacy) sits at an airport, fending off tiresome, invasive questions from a nearby, overly friendly couple.  They note that the resort he has just come from has been shook by a death.  He confirms said news and informs them that the deceased body will be travelling on their plane.  It’s dark, it’s uncomfortable, and it makes for great television.

Rewinding to days earlier and it’s a far happier Shane we are introduced to, walking hand-in-hand with his new bride, Alexandra Daddario‘s sunny Rachel, hoping to enjoy the superficiality of the resort his evidently wealthy parents have paid for; the absence of Rachel by his side in the opening sequence may seem to suggest she’s the unfortunate deceased, but as each scene featuring Shane reveals his insufferable privilege, you can’t help but think perhaps the too-good-for-him Rachel leaves him on her own accord.

It would also be too easy for Rachel to be the presumed dead, especially when The White Lotus resort houses a slew of other guests that, however subtle they may be, suggest dark temperaments of their own.  There’s the powerful Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), a SheEO of sorts on vacation with her husband (Steve Zahn), who spends a great deal of this first episode (and possibly the series) worried he has testicular cancer, and their two children, son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), seemingly content with keeping eerily to himself, and daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), in tow with her bestie (Brittany O’Grady), who expresses a nasty streak that, you imagine, could get her into a lot of trouble should she mouth-off to the wrong person.

A much lighter presence checking in, though no less chaotic, is Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) – shell tell you how to pronounce her surname – a softly spoken yet erratic solo traveller who has arrived with the intention of scattering her mother’s ashes in the ocean.  Whilst the ashes are of grave importance to her – you get the sense that there’s a deep dive on her relationship with her mother to be uncovered – this episode sets up Tanya’s eccentricities and her need for human contact.  Coolidge has an uncanny ability to make you laugh with the simplest of glances or inflections, and her dippy, doe-eyed shtick is utilised to the best of its abilities here, though she also expresses a sadness and vulnerability that very well suggests she’ll be the show’s unlikely heart.

Overseeing all the grounded nonsense is Armond (stupendously portrayed by Australian talent Murray Bartlett), a perpetually positive (often by force) manager who displays an unbreakable sternness that you can’t help but feel will violently crack by the show’s end.  It’s all ultimate speculation though, but White, who serves as director and writer, is clearly all too aware that the nuances present in each of these characters can all give way to violent tendencies – whether intentional or not.

Whilst it’s difficult to tell just what exactly will come from the 5 episodes to follow – and whether or not it proves remotely satisfactory in its deathly reveal – The White Lotus succeeds as an understated comedy, one that toes the line in its delicate representation of exaggerated personas.  Bartlett and Coolidge emerge early as the show’s MVPs though, both offering performances that cater to their theatrical inclinations whilst remaining centred in a tragic truth.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The White Lotus will premiere on Foxtel on Monday, July 12th, 2021.  New episodes to be released each week.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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