How The White Lotus invents the "Aloha Christie" genre
The HBO and Sky drama combines the sun-soaked escapism of Love Island with the wicked thrills of Killing Eve, the superannuated soapiness of Big Little Lies and the glossy murder-mystery of The Undoing, writes Michael Hogan.
By: Michael Hogan
“Aloha and welcome to The White Lotus Resort & Spa. Enjoy your stay and try not to get murdered.” OK, we added the last bit but that’s basically the premise of your next must-see US boxset.
Landing on HBO on Sunday - and coming to Sky Atlantic later this summer - The White Lotus is a TV drama like no other. A tragicomic whodunit set at a swanky Hawaiian resort, you might say it invents a whole new storytelling style called “Aloha Christie”. See what we did there? Painful pun aside, though, this is a show well worth your attention.
The Agatha Christie comparison is apposite. The queen of crime enjoyed nothing more than trapping a group of disparate characters in a confined location, then watching sparks fly and corpses pile up. Rather than Christie’s favoured locations - boats, trains, sleepy villages, country houses - this murder-mystery unfolds at a five-star holiday destination.
Created, written and directed by Mike White (of Enlightened and School Of Rock pedigree), the six-part series follows a fresh intake of White Lotus guests across a week as they attempt to relax and rejuvenate in the idyllic, highly Instagram-able resort.
With each passing day, though, dark secrets bubble to the shiny surface. The dress code might be “beachy-casual” but the daiquiris have a sour aftertaste and the lobster dinners have vicious claws.
Taglined ‘Paradise is no vacation”, The White Lotus was filmed on the island of Maui and it’s a holiday for the eyes. Palm trees sway, waves lap up on the picture-perfect beach and cloud-shrouded volcanos loom over the bay. Its setting resembles Disney musical Moana with added scuba lessons and spa treatments.
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Right from the opening scene, we know that a resident has been killed. We just don’t know who, why or the gory details. We then flash back seven days to witness how events turned quite so murderous. Just like a Christie mystery, there’s a limited list of suspects. The culprit had to be a tourist or member of hotel staff. So who's the deadly serpent in this elite Eden?
The ensemble cast is full of familiar faces who you’ll recognise from other prestige US productions. The seemingly cheerful White Lotus employees are led by fastidious resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett from Looking and Tales Of The City), who becomes more Basil Fawlty-ish as the story unfolds. He’s joined behind the marble reception desk by spa manager Belinda (Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell), who gets taken on an emotional rollercoaster by a needy client.
As for the VIP guests, well, they’re a deeply dysfunctional bunch. First come the Mossbacher family, led by alpha-exec Nicole (Nashville’s Connie Britton), a tech mogul who can’t help treating her family like troublesome employees. She’s supposed to be de-stressing but can’t stop rearranging the furniture in their vast hotel suite to enhance its feng shui and perfect the Zoom background for her corporate video calls.
Her gaffe-prone, emasculated husband Mark (Treme’s Steve Zahn) is struggling with a health crisis, a parentage revelation and a terminal inferiority complex. Their teenage son Quinn (The Woman In The window's Fred Hechinger) is a socially awkward gamer who’s glued to his gadgets but about to undergo an epiphany.
A comic Greek chorus is provided by their daughter Olivia (Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney) and her best friend Paula (Little Voice's Brittany O’Grady) - a pair of terrifying acid-tongued college sophomores who sit in sardonic judgement of everyone else. This hilarious pair often seem to have wandered in from Mean Girls or Broad City but their relationship develops in unexpected directions.
On their fairytale honeymoon are entitled, Ralph Lauren-clad douchebag Shane Patton (The US Office's Jake Lacy) and his much more relatable new bride Rachel (Alexandra Daddario from the Percy Jackson films). Suddenly faced with each other’s flaws - not to mention the surprise arrival of smarmy Shane’s overbearing mother (Molly Shannon of Val-the-neighbour from Will & Grace fame) - love’s young dream soon turns nightmarish.
Last but by no means least, there’s the wealthy but unstable Tanya McQuoid (comedic grande-dame Jennifer Coolidge), a solo traveller recovering from the recent death of her mother and in desperate need of a deep tissue massage. All glamorous frocks and trembling lips, it’s a matter of time (and a few large glasses of Chardonnay) before she “unleashes the crazy”. Coolidge and Bartlett are the standout performers here.
The series opens with an episode called “Arrivals”, while the finale is entitled “Departures”. In between, it’s full of surprises. Romantic boat-trips backfire. Candlelit dinners dissolve into bitter rows and kamikaze tequila benders. Unlikely hook-ups happen. A jewel thief pulls off a heist. Characters emerge as heroes who you’d never expect.
There’s a sudden birth to counterbalance a sort-of-funeral, not to mention that dead body in a sunken bathtub. Nearly every character seems to be at a career crossroads or in the midst of a personal crisis. There are three knowingly outrageous nude scenes - in episodes one, four and six, in case you want to diarise them - which will make you squeal aloud at the screen.
Beneath the grass skirts, floral garlands and whip-smart gags, it’s refreshingly intelligent too. Characters suddenly quote Tennyson or refer to Greek myths. Beside the infinity plunge pools, sunbathers read Nietzsche and Malcolm Gladwell. There’s a running theme of white privilege, wealth inequality and colonialism. The culture wars intrude via “cucking” and “cancelling”. A Black Lives Matter mix-up causes much mirth.
The White Lotus has heart as well as brains. Two holiday romances are surprisingly sweet. Sequences of sea turtles swimming and whales breaching are downright magical. Several characters’ arcs are poignant, poetic and ultimately uplifting.
The result is an addictive, genre-busting blend of cringe comedy, whodunit drama and “wellness” satire. Goop supremo Gwyneth Paltrow might find herself “triggered” by the tongue-in-cheek therapy-speak and cod-spiritual psycho-wibble. This is a world of reiki healing, oxygen facials, craniosacral therapy and all-round holistic hogwash.
The White Lotus combines the sun-soaked escapism of Love Island with the wicked thrills of Killing Eve, the superannuated soapiness of Big Little Lies and the glossy murder-mystery of The Undoing.
This deeply idiosyncratic, scathingly sardonic series is arguably one of the TV dramas of year so far. It's certainly one of the most singular in tone. Check in and enjoy your stay - but do watch out for killers carrying kitchen knives. Namaste.
The White Lotus airs in the USA on Sunday 11th July at 9pm ET/PT on HBO, and is set to this summer on Sky in the UK. Take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or find out what else is on with our TV guide.