When HBO's The White Lotus debuted last year, it felt like yet another show about the airheaded elite behaving badly and mostly getting away with it.
We already have Succession, Big Little Lies, The Undoing and so many other shows that walk a fine line between condemning and glamorizing extreme wealth. So when a boat full of very White, rich tourists pulled up to a sparkling Hawaiian resort in the first season of Lotus, it felt like more of the same.
And it was. But it also kind of worked.
Watching the comfortably elite have a shitty time on vacation is fun, but the show's first season felt hesitant to let the viewer have too much fun. To keep things from straying too far into soap opera territory, the first season couched its drama in themes of colonialism and class. It was hit-or-miss. At times, it felt like show creator Mike White's own self-consciousness was creeping onto the screen: Yes, we're rich and White and eating calamari on stolen land, the characters said to themselves, but we feel kinda bad about it, too.
The second season is stronger because it strays away from the moralizing and leans harder on the gorgeous scenery, petty drama and spectacle.
There's an almost entirely new cast of characters, and instead of Hawaii, the setting is sun-drenched Sicily. While the resort staff were well-defined key characters in the first season, they're almost entirely absent in the second. In doing this, the show loses some of the biting social commentary that made its first season feel important, but it gains some of the mindless drama that made it addictive.
Instead of colonialism and class, the main theme is sex. Soap opera stuff. The murder mystery that gave the first season a semblance of plot movement is back in the second season, but it's also more muted and takes a back seat to infidelity and steamy Italian rendezvous.
But that's what the show does best.
The first season of Lotus felt like it was reaching for something greater than itself — a social commentary and class satire on the scale of Succession. It came close but never quite figured out what it wanted to say. The show is still smart, but its ambitions are quieter in its second season, and it's somehow stronger because of it.
While the new season explores some interesting themes involving gender politics — two of the most interesting characters are sex workers — it's overshadowed by the scenes that went viral on Twitter. Like in episode one, when actor Theo James, who plays a finance ghoul one NDA away from a #MeToo moment, briefly exposes his penis. (It was a prosthetic, according to dozens of articles dissecting the scene that went online immediately after the episode aired.)
The class, race and colonial politics that Lotus tried to eschew in its first season are important to talk about, but maybe this show isn't the best vehicle for that. At it's core, Lotus is a soapy murder mystery about rich people at beautiful resorts behaving badly and struggling with their own self-destruction.
The acting, cinematography, music and writing are all brilliant — even when there's nothing deeper beneath the surface. That's fun to gawk at, and maybe it doesn't need anything more. ♦