In the second July of the ongoing pandemic, with his cinephilia fading, Film Quarterly columnist Bilal Qureshi was jolted awake by the biting excellence of HBO’s six-part series The White Lotus, the undeniable water-cooler show of the summer. A classis whodunnit set among a collective of entitled, smug, and vindictive wealthy tourists at a Hawaiian luxury resort, The White Lotus proved a provocative meditation on class, privilege, and the frayed national mood. To have a work of mainstream “prestige” TV—with is lavish production values and characteristic wealthy white angst—inspire confusion and disagreement over issues of whiteness and privilege strikes Qureshi as a welcome shift from streaming’s usual habit of lulling audiences into one-dimensional distraction and cements The White Lotus’s status as a definitive pandemic-era piece of filmmaking.
In the second summer of pandemic streaming, as multiplexes failed to resuscitate their business and one Marvel star sued Disney over diminished returns, streaming remained cinema’s victorious theater of entertainments. As a lifelong devotee of the theatrical experience, I’ve remained a reluctant home viewer; I even tried to drag myself out into the Delta summer of renewed mask mandates and dangerous antivaxxers by stubbornly returning to multiplexes. The films of 2021 that were meant to revive the American summer movie season—F9 (Justin Lin), Stillwater (Tom McCarthy), The Green Knight (David Lowery)—were commercial and critical mixed bags, to be generous.
But the mournful eulogies for cinema have been coming fast and furiously for years, from the superhero costumed tragedy of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) to the Martin Scorsese screed (2019) and A. O. Scott’s essay this past July about cinema’s aftertimes.1 These lamentations are certainly issued from a particular kind of establishment voice, but there is sincere concern behind the hand-wringing. In my case, if streaming is indeed where the future of the medium is being written, I am not sure I feel so confident about the creative output that the culture is meant to be celebrating. Much of what has been green-lighted, downloaded, and awarded in the streaming wars has felt overrated, or, at the very least, quickly forgotten in the flood of content. Expensive series with the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Cate Blanchett, and John Krasinski—think The Morning Show (Apple, 2019-present), Mrs. America (FX, 2020), a Jack Ryan reboot (Amazon, 2018-present)—seem to fade out of view, pushed behind yet another box set on the shelf, to binge and be disposed of, in a consumption bubble. Series created by committee, tested by data, and designed for predictable social-media provocation seem destined to dominate the shrinking attention economy of this exhausting arms race.
But in the second July of the ongoing pandemic, with my cinephilia fading, I was jolted awake by the biting excellence of HBO’s six-part series The White Lotus. Created, written, and directed by one Mike White, the lush miniseries about a collective of entitled, smug, and vindictive wealthy tourists at a Hawaiian luxury resort became the undeniable water-cooler show of the summer.
White is a successful, albeit idiosyncratic, actor, screenwriter, and director. With credits ranging from Dawson’s Creek (The WB, 1998–2003) to School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003), he’s emerged in recent years as a singular voice in American filmmaking. His previous series Enlightened (HBO, 2011–13)—starring the now resurgent but then pre–Big Little Lies (HBO, 2017–19) and pre–Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019) Laura Dern—examined one woman’s collapse from the corporate slog. Despite the show’s devoted fan base, it was canceled by HBO due to low ratings. His writing may be decidedly off-key, but White’s work features recognizable stars and accessible, pleasing settings. His most recent film. Brad’s Status (2017), starring Ben Stiller, resembled the kind of commercial if cerebral dark comedies that Nicole Holofcener and Noah Baumbach produce. These are hardly multicultural stories in their casting or world building, but they are distinctive and memorable for their sharply defined characters
The White Lotus is arguably White’s most successful and resonant work—and was produced during the most fraught moment in American politics since the 9/11 era: the post–George Floyd, and midpandemic, Trumpian transition of 2020. Filmed during and under extreme COVID restrictions at a closed resort, The White Lotus broke through the noise to emerge as a provocative meditation on class, privilege, and the frayed national mood.
The show received immediate criticism for being yet another prestige drama about rich white people’s problems—a specialty of HBO’s roster of white angst, as reflected across Sex and the City (1998–2004), Big Little Lies, Succession (2018–), and even White’s own Enlightened. As the show unfurled, however, the multiracial service staff in the series gradually became the show’s focus. The specific questions driving the series involve how the privileged guests treat, ignore, and neglect the invisibilized staff that serves them, all the while stewing in their own entitled problems.
The series opens with a classic whodunnit hook: a coffin is loaded onto a plane as one of the show’s central characters explains that there was a death at the show’s eponymously named resort. The camera then cuts in an apparent flashback to the hotel’s private boat sailing toward the utopian resort on Maui, carrying the wealthiest of tourists dressed in hats and caftans across a Hawaiian sunset to a palm-lined coastline. The ensemble of the entitled includes actors Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, and Steve Zahn—the latter two playing a married couple holidaying with their feuding children and an accompanying friend.
They’re received at the hotel by a gratingly cheery manager, Armand, played by the brilliant Australian actor Murray Bartlett (who starred in HBO’s Looking [2014–16]). Before the guests disembark, he turns to the Native Hawaiian young woman who is his trainee to make sure she remembers that her role is to remain as vague and indistinguishable as possible—that the purpose of the staff is to perform a kind of disappearing “tropical kabuki.” Despite his best efforts at service artifice, tensions with guests begin and microaggressions swirl into passive-aggressive confrontations and eventually violent collisions. Under pressure from all fronts, Armand’s lapsed drug addiction returns, and, fueled by hypnotic, slow-motion benders, he embarks on a delicious path of class vengeance.
One of the only guests of color at the resort is a young woman named Paula, played by Brittany O’Grady, who has joined Connie Britton’s fictional family as their daughter’s guest. The reliably excellent Britton plays a Gwyneth Paltrow–inspired business executive struggling to wrangle her smug adult children between Zoom conference calls and poolside cocktails. As Britton complains about the professional struggles facing cis, straight white males like her son and husband in the new age of wokeness, Paula listens, her disdain for a world to which she’ll never belong increasing. She finds the tribal dances the family applauds an unbearable exercise in colonial tourism and exploitation—and encourages the Native Hawaiian employee she’s hooking up with to rob the family by providing him the code to the family’s safe. O’Grady delivers a phenomenally rendered performance of emerging resentment and the isolating experience of racism, piecing together micro- and macroaggressions into a systemic pattern of disdain.
I have watched and rewatched the six episodes of The White Lotus and found myself repeatedly pondering why and how it manages to deliver its nerve-rattling and anxiety-producing mood while also providing the grandeur and sensual pleasures of cinema. Its breakthrough success feels even more significant given how splintered audience attention and critical focus have become in the current age of infinite streaming universes of content. White employs music, costuming, casting, composition, and pacing in the service of his central questions about white privilege, class, and identity politics.
As a nonwhite viewer, I find that the earnest emphasis on representation and inclusion in Hollywood sometimes misses the point. As the subject of inequality and injustice is explored with renewed vigor and honesty in the United States, a more internal self-examination of whiteness feels both essential and most revealing. The divisive reactions to The White Lotus and breathless commentary about it, as well as the violent disagreements that have escalated among critics and audiences, attest to how uncomfortable this conversation remains. To have a work of mainstream entertainment inspire confusion and disagreement over class feels like a welcome shift from streaming’s usual habit of simply lulling audiences into one-dimensional distraction.
When so many streaming series use wide-screen cinematography and lavish production values in order to resemble “prestige” TV, what does such a label even mean anymore? The monocultural unanimity that offered breathless praise for Mad Men (AMC, 2007–14) fanned out into both echo chambers and microcommunities, evolving with the digital-media wars that by now have generated so many instant think pieces and hot takes that they’ve disrupted the possibility for any one story to remain center stage. It may be an inclusive era, but it’s also often an exhausting one for the mere viewer. On-demand TV, once heralded as the unobstructed creative territory of David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and company, is now fully governed by data models that churn out checkout-bin levels of candy-coated delicacies. Yes, I would even include Emmy-nominated gloss like Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton (Netflix, 2020–), with its highbrow costume-drama aspirations buoyed by self-consciously race-blind casting and unrated sex romps.
It is a testament to Mike White’s gifts and consistency as a writer that despite its glossy surfaces, The White Lotus is composed of recurring threads drawn from across his work, including some of his least-seen and least-known features. What interests White in all his projects—even as a contestant in 2018 on the reality TV series Survivor (2000–)—are men and women in existential moments of crisis, captured either rejecting a moment that demands transformation or embracing change regardless of how messy and uncomfortable it seems. The show does indeed seduce audiences with the glamour and dysfunction of its white elite, but then turns itself upside down to subject their inner biases, judgments, and limitations to compelling and searing examination. The show has been renewed for a second season by HBO, as expected—and the attractive cast, their clothes, and the Four Seasons Maui used as its setting have all been featured in profiles and quick takes.
The question for a creator like White—a singular writer whose imprint and distinctively queer gaze is so tangible in each frame and word of this project—is how to retain that creative autonomy in a TV age that feels like an arms race of relentless releases and lucrative contracts. It also feels brave and commendable to retain a perspective on culture and politics that doesn’t feel studied or crowdsourced for least offense. The bite, vitality, and undeniable appeal of this lockdown creation make it a definitive pandemic-era piece of filmmaking. Its openness as a text and its ability to unsettle and provoke audiences make it an undeniable work of art. For this writer—and former theatrical-film stalwart, obsessively indulging in cinematic hand-wringing—The White Lotus is the most hopeful sign yet of an aftertimes I could welcome.
See Martin Scorsese, “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” New York Times, November 4, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html; and A. O. Scott. “The Movies Are Back. But What Are Movies Now?” New York Times, July 15, 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/07/15/movies/streaming-theater-hollywood.html.