In the fourth episode of HBO’s The White Lotus, Mike White’s acidic dramedy set in a luxurious Hawaiian resort, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) tells her new husband Shane Patton (Jake Lacy) that she’s thinking about quitting journalism. The two are on their honeymoon when Rachel ponders the viability of her career as a freelance journalist. In “Recentering,” she grudgingly agrees with Shane that the industry sucks—“it’s mostly clickbait for, like, no money”— and admits she doesn’t have the drive required to succeed in the way others her age have. “I’m not great, I’m not excellent,” she convinces herself, possibly experiencing a case of imposter syndrome about getting as far as she has while writing puff pieces and listicles. Through Rachel, The White Lotus depicts the shifting state of digital media and those working in it.
The satirical limited series establishes in its premiere, “Arrivals,” that the customers rolling into the White Lotus resort have plenty of baggage. The season gradually peels back their problems, and Rachel juggles two considerable ones: uncertain employment opportunities and the realization that she’s married a rich douche. She tells the resort’s extremely sarcastic young guests Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady) that she studied journalism at SUNY in Potsdam, New York before moving to New York City with a desire to change the world and make a name for herself (and maybe pay off her loans). Instead, Rachel mostly aggregates stories, including other writers’ in-depth profiles of girlbosses like Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), a Sheryl Sandberg-type who also happens to be Olivia’s mom. Rachel’s biggest claim to fame is a listicle made from repurposed profiles, titled “10 Women Kicking The Corporate World’s Ass.”
Through this brief scene and the build-up to it, White is able to tap into the tragicomic demand for constant content in digital media. In the last few years, myriad TV shows have attempted to capture media’s evolving nature, from The Newsroom’s holier-than-thou approach to The Morning Show’s showy but timely narrative; from Great News’ comedic setting to the short-lived Murphy Brown revival. It’s been a greater challenge to effectively portray the age of online journalism on TV. The White Lotus invokes the industry-wide mandates to produce more and more “content,” following in the footsteps of Succession to provide a terrifyingly accurate depiction of digital media.
In the season two Succession episode “Vaulter,” Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) is tasked by his ruthless father Logan (Brian Cox) with shutting down the media startup Vaulter, which was personally acquired by Kendall, but is now failing and becoming a blight on the list of Waystar Royco assets. The episode is a biting parody of how the industry can operate—multiple firings without warning, the importance of unionization, and the sometimes fraught dynamic between a parent company and the outlet itself. For audiences, “Vaulter” was eye-opening, but for many writers and journalists, it was a frightening cautionary tale ripped from real headlines, especially as the Vaulter writers were caught off guard by their termination. As The A.V. Club’s Randall Colburn wrote in his recap of the episode: “That Kendall ‘harvested a bunch of ideas’ from the staff for Waystar’s own purposes is the final slap in the face.”
In The White Lotus, Rachel has no choice but to unlearn what she knows about journalism from school and focus on “repurposing” or aggregating another writer’s story to garner eyeballs, perhaps even at the cost of original, creative ideas. The show consequently sheds light on her experiences, including a tense conversation between Rachel and Nicole in episode two. Nicole berates Rachel’s work by calling her story on businesswomen “a hack job” and “a fucked-up piece.” Upon learning it was repurposed from another article, Nicole further insults Rachel’s skills, which motivates the younger woman to put her profession on the back burner and maybe turn to working at a nonprofit instead.
In “Recentering,” Rachel gets unsolicited advice from Shane, who says journalism is a sucker’s game. Her mother-in-law, Kitty (Molly Shannon), encourages Rachel to sit on boards for charities as opposed to getting an actual job to earn her own money. To quote a fictional but equally disillusioned writer, I couldn’t help but wonder, did Rachel briefly consider it because she knows her current gig won’t garner enough income anyway, even if she works while on her honeymoon? TV has often portrayed journalists in quite unrealistic ways, including through Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), a weekly columnist writing about sex and love who somehow can afford to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end brand-name shoes.
More recently, shows like Shrill and The Bold Type have attempted to showcase different aspects of the journalism industry, even though the latter was detached from reality with its focus on New York’s glamorous media elite. The Freeform drama about the impeccably styled employees of Scarlet magazine (think Vogue) triumphed in its depictions of the friendship between social media expert Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), writer Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens), and stylist Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy), but could never grasp how journalism actually works. While most of the storylines surrounded the print magazine, season three began venturing into digital. Characters were aggressively calling Scarlet’s online version “the dot com,” a phrase used enough times to conjure up a drinking game that would definitely lead to a delirious hangover. Jane kept failing upwards professionally, landing her own vertical and being considered for an editor-in-chief position despite no real leadership or work experience for the job. The Bold Type sold viewers on its escapism, but left a lot to be desired as an insightful reflection of media.
The White Lotus, on the other hand, is aided by White’s satirical lens and Daddario’s effective depiction of Rachel’s exasperation at her career dilemma, to help both the industry critique and the humor land. Much like Succession, White Lotus is able to thread that particular needle, offering a dire but accurate take that’s also refreshing and entertaining.