There are many of us who thought it was (is!) a fool’s errand to try to follow up the wickedly delicious first season of Mike White’s Emmy-winning series The White Lotus. That Hawai’i-set entry gifted us career-making turns by Jennifer Coolidge (as a wayward romantic billionaire who gets her happily ever after) and Murray Bartlett (as a wound-up hotel employee who meets a tragic death) that put issues of privilege, masculinity, and pent-up desires into a tragicomedy that could just as easily make you laugh as make you gasp. But since we live in a world where nothing is ever allowed to end, HBO wisely asked White to turn what was intended as a limited series into that all too fashionable “anthology series” instead. Enter: The White Lotus: Sicily.
One of the triumphs of the series’ first season was the choice of setting. Hotels, after all, are particularly ripe for narrative exploration. They’re mirages unto themselves, buildings crafted around vibes that are designed to exist as dreamlike adventures for its guests. They’re meant to be temporary, ephemeral even. And, perhaps more to the point (given what White explored in season one), they’re sites of possibility. Our homes, our jobs, and our families can constrain us; a hotel in a far remote location (like Hawai’i or Sicily, say) emerges as an opportunity to try on different versions of yourself.
To judge by the cast of characters White has whisked to the Sicily outpost of the White Lotus hotel chain, it’s clear the mind behind Enlightened continues to be fascinated by the ways in which our everyday lives can become prisons of our own making. And what better way to explore that than to put a few couples through the wringer in a space precisely designed to have you enjoy the best kind of life you could ever imagine—if only, and especially, just for a few days?
That is if your vacation isn’t suddenly cut short by a drowned guest or two. (Yes, just like last year, it seems The White Lotus has a body count!) But, just like last year, we may spend less time trying to figure who (and why they) died than trying to follow the many interpersonal dramas White has cooked up for us this time around. Especially since he gives us, not even fifteen minutes in, a mythological metaphor that may well structure the entire season: the “testa di moro.” The Sicilian fable about a moor who, after seducing a rosy-cheeked young woman, found himself beheaded once his beloved found out he had a wife and kids back East feels perhaps like an all too pat and blunt warning sign, but then White’s writing for The White Lotus feels a tad more operatic than your everyday HBO fare.
So, let’s get to this year’s guests, a slew of couples who may not heed the moral of the story at the heart of that Sicilian legend: There’s Harper and Ethan (Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe), who are traveling with Cameron and Daphne (Theo James and Meghann Fahy). The former buttoned up couple look like the kind who cuddle up in bed with a book and discuss NPR and New Yorker articles. The other? Well, let’s just say that Harper noting they likely don’t read at all seems like an apt description of the gorgeous, all too affectionate couple who may or may not have voted in the last election. White has such an ear for vapid dialogue that any of the scenes with Cameron and Daphne are some of the funniest in this premiere episode. Like, “We do a lot of Dateline” and “Tell him I say hi and also congrats on not getting disbarred” are just amazing and tell you so much about these people and their approach to, well, everything from justice to entertainment.
Then there’s Tanya (Coolidge) who is now married to Greg (Jon Gries). Only maybe they’re past their honeymoon phase. He’s already checking how many macarons she’s eating and throwing a fit over her decision to bring over her assistant (Haley Lu Richardson’s Portia) to what he hoped was a romantic trip—after not answering her many texts. Rounding out the ensemble is a trio of men (grandfather, father, and son, at that) who are there on a trek to visit Bert’s (F. Murray Abraham) grandmother’s birthplace. If White Lotus: Hawai’i began prodding at the ways in which masculinity can weather men’s own self-image, that continues here. (What was Armond’s story if not a cautionary tale about how to navigate masculinity as a gay man who works in a place that demands he cower toward men who get off on the authority they lord over those like him?) Three generations of Italian-American men get to stand in for new ways of being a man—a single man at that.
How their stories (oh, and the Italian escort, who’s already gotten on the bad side of the hotel’s manager) will all intertwine as the episodes unfold is yet to be revealed. But I will say this about this latest White sojourn: His eye and ear for how privileged folks move through the world continue to be unmatched, especially within the trappings of a very funny black comedy that looks and sounds as sumptuous as its titular hotel.
- As the season progresses I may need to pause and examine every single frame of the beautiful and provocative opening credit titles for this “Sicily” tour. Because oh my are they gorgeous, finding a fine balance between the beautiful and the grotesque, between the divine and the profane. In essence, it feels distinctly “Italian” in the way the country can sometimes be reduced to its artistic output while also feeling true to the mythology of the country that gets exported culturally on any given day.
- Was I happy that The White Lotus basically hogged the Limited Series performance categories at the most recent Emmy awards (where Coolidge and Bartlett triumphed over six of their respective co-stars)? No. But then I look at the amazing casting for this season and I understand why voters could be so smitten with the cast chemistry at work here. Should we begin making bets as to who’ll emerge as MVP? Might it be Aubrey Plaza’s low-key acerbic Harper? Or F. Murray Abraham’s flirty Bert? Or maybe Haley Lu Richardson’s harried Portia? Theo James’ brazenly bro-y Cameron? It’s truly a bounty of riches.
- White’s dialogue is gonna have me agonizing over which of his one-liners to isolate on any given recap. Let me offer just two this week: “Would you like a cup of tea?” which is a great way to sass your employees into working and “It’s a penis. It’s not a sunset” which… well, speaks for itself.
- Things I am now craving for myself for no reason* (*lots of reasons, actually): an orange knitted tee, sea foam swim trunks, and, so as to not sound as one-track-minded, three to five macarons.
- “I love a binge!” Same, same, same.