Triumphant Success: The Evolution of “The White Lotus”

We examine how the sarcastic endeavour of an extraordinarily gifted outsider has metamorphosed into a genuine sensation, an outcome entirely unanticipated by all.

The Showrunner

The broad audience only seems to have become aware of Mike White (showrunner, director, and screenwriter) following the triumphant premiere season of “The White Lotus”. Prior to this, he may have been remembered by more discerning viewers for the excellent series “Enlightened” featuring Laura Dern, which predictably did not achieve widespread popularity. White could be termed an ambitious underachiever: a highly noticeable screenwriter in the industry, whenever he took the initiative into his own hands to create projects, they were met with failure.

His career originated with low-budget teen films and television series (“Dawson’s Creek”, “Freaks and Geeks”). Later, he encountered director Miguel Arteta and comedian Jack Black. With Arteta, White would write the cult indie film “Chuck & Buck” (and continue to collaborate frequently with him), and with Black, he created the film company Black and White, which produced the legendary “School of Rock” by Richard Linklater with Black in the lead role.

Around the same time, as zoomboola.com says, he launched his first series “Pasadena” – a daytime drama which was cancelled after just four episodes (presumably due to the September 11th attacks). White’s second show, the sitcom “Cracking Up” featuring Jason Schwartzman, aired in the evening but ended disastrously.

His vision was so radically different from FOX’s plans that the final episodes were pulled off the air, and the showrunner himself was fired. White suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Later, he would channel this experience into the series “Enlightened”, which was cancelled after the second season, despite the show’s reasonable success.

Somewhere between these attempts to create his own television presence rather than remain a ghostwriter in the shadows of successful directors, Mike White made two intriguing films – “Year of the Dog” and “Brad’s Status”, which did not do well at the box office and were unjustly forgotten by the audience. In light of such a succession of failures, it would have been easy to throw in the towel and abandon the venture of becoming a prominent author. However, this was not the case for Mike White. He was so fed up with failures due to others’ incompetence that he decided to go all in and create a risky project, a biting and unconventional satire on wealthy people, wrapped in a mystery, where he controlled all the key processes.

Season Opener

The White Lotus” was originally conceived as a miniseries, as White realized that he was unlucky with “regular” shows. The first season told the story of one of the five-star hotels of the fictional tourist network “The White Lotus”, located in Hawaii. At the center of the plot are several families, couples or just loners, united by their enviable affluence.

Nicole and Mark Mossbacher (Connie Britton and Steve Zahn) embark on a typical honeymoon vacation with their son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Their relationship is set to undergo a serious test of strength. Rachel and Shane Patton (Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy) are newlyweds whose marriage is already showing signs of strain. And finally, the solitary Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), an heiress to a large fortune, who is mourning her mother’s death.

From the very beginning, the audience knows that an unexpected death has occurred at the resort. The first season is built on the detective syndrome: we need to carefully watch each character to guess who will ultimately die. Yes, the prevailing desire here is to find the victim, not the murderer.

An inverted mystery, script and directorial precision, top-notch humor – in 2021, “The White Lotus” was appreciated by both audiences and critics, earning ten Emmys (three of which went directly to White). This resounding success allowed the series to be renewed for a second season and turned it into an anthology.

A Trip to Italy

The second season, as is customary in anthologies, is very loosely connected to the previous one. It’s the same network, but now we find ourselves in a hotel in Sicily. From the first season, we only see two characters, Tanya and her newly minted husband, whom she met in Hawaii. This connection does not affect the understanding of the second season at all, so it can be watched separately if you, for example, prefer Sicily. However, the number of characters to keep track of has doubled, although we still only have one sudden death.

The Di Grasso family trio, consisting of aging Berto (F. Murray Abraham), his son, a Hollywood producer, Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and grandson, Stanford’s pledge boy, Ebbie (Adam DiMarco), come to an Italian resort to reconnect with their Sicilian roots. Each of them has problems with women and the institution of marriage, which only become more noticeable on vacation away from home. The shadow of guilt for a poor upbringing model falls on the senior member of the trio.

Two former friends, Cameron (Theo James) and Ethan (Will Sharp), come to the resort with their wives Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza), as if for an unspoken competition – who among them has achieved more in their career and personal life. But the couples are radically different: Cameron and Daphne give the impression of posers, while Ethan and Harper, though clearly problematic, are still more natural in their behavior.

The most interesting characters this time are two local Italian friends Lucia and Mia: girls without any privileges, working part-time as escorts during the rush of the wealthiest tourists. Perpetually chased by the “Lotus” administrator, they constantly intersect with the aforementioned characters and create problematic situations.

The already familiar heroine Coolidge, who just recently got married, becomes a much deeper and tragic character here. Gradually rejecting established norms and dealing with an unequal marriage, she seeks herself in unexpected acquaintances. And her newly minted assistant (it’s conceptually unclear what exactly she assists her with), Porsche (Haley Lu Richardson), tries to squeeze the most out of this thankless job – torn between the dream of falling madly in love and one-night stand sex without obligations.

New Proposals

“The White Lotus” has never been exclusively a mockery of rich people: look at their tiny problems. In the second season, this becomes more obvious when White adds characters with far more modest bank accounts. Of course, it’s primarily a series about privileges of all kinds, and how people use them. There’s no need for stories specifically about money: for example, in the Di Grasso family, it doesn’t matter who’s richer, the main thing is who’s older, higher in the hierarchy. Cameron manipulates this when he wants to put Ethan in his place with his demonstratively perfect marriage, whom he humiliated in his youth.

The relationship between Lucia and Mia is also manipulative, though neither of them suspects it. Lucia pushes her friend to earn a living as an escort because she sees no other prospects for herself. Unlike Mia, who possesses outstanding musical talents. They also view their sex work as a privilege: easy wealthy victims, easy money.

“The White Lotus” is amazing in how it mixes seemingly unrelated storylines at the start. All lines are constantly mixed up with each other and, if in the first season each story could be told separately, now it’s almost impossible. Also, in the second season, cinephile techniques appeared: Mike White regularly makes visual references and homages to the classics of Italian cinema and Antonioni in particular. In other words, the series has become more complex, subtle, and multifaceted.