The future of The White Lotus was never in any doubt following the critical acclaim and multiple awards it received for its debut outing. It arrived with little fanfare but its ratings steadily grew over the course of the series as word spread about Mike White's tour de force and Jennifer Coolidge's performance for the ages.
In season 2, Hawaii has been swapped out for Sicily, with a new group of moneyed guests – plus Coolidge's Tanya McQuoid and her husband Greg (John Gries) – descending upon the resort's southern Italian setting.
The dramatic vistas and hyperbolic architecture provide the perfect backdrop for this season's central theme: sex, which plays well given the hotel used to be a convent.
White uses the various character interplays, each with their own rhythms and idiosyncrasies, to illustrate that sex is never purely about sex, but a window into human behaviour and power dynamics within relationships. He examines how sex can be used to both empower and overpower, and explores the fine line between a seemingly inconsequential encounter and total destruction – a member of staff recites the legend of "Testa di Moro" or the Moor's Head, the story of a beautiful girl who chops off the head of her seducer on learning that he has a wife and two children.
Hollywood producer Dominic Di Grasso (The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli) should be on vacation with the whole family, but his wife and daughter chose to remain in LA because he just can't stop having affairs. He claims it's a sex addiction, which will elicit an eye roll or two from many female viewers, but there’s palpable sadness in Dominic’s eyes.
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His encounters with Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), two Sicilian women who are young enough to be his daughters, illustrate his need – rather than the less dominant want – with Dominic engulfed by his compulsion as he bundles them into his room at pace and hurries them out before the first coffee of the day has been brewed.
Then there's Cameron (Theo James), who works in finance, and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy), a stay-at-home mum who has perfected her sunshine and rainbows persona. The couple appear to have a blemish-free marriage, but that facade falls away as the series progresses. (This is The White Lotus, after all).
They're holidaying with Ethan (Will Sharpe), Cam's friend from university who is newly wealthy after selling his business for an astronomical sum (you can feel the heat of Cam's resentment burning through the screen) and his wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza), a lawyer who wears her thoughts firmly on her face.
Unlike Cam and Daphne, the contours of their relationship are trickier to navigate. They're aligned on an intellectual level but their sex life has stalled, a subject which neither is keen to confront – which stokes tensions in later episodes.
And it wouldn't be The White Lotus without melancholic heiress Tanya, who is just as lonely as ever, even with her husband Greg in tow. Their marriage, although relatively recent, is already on its last legs, with Greg palpably dissatisfied with his wife, and any opportunity where romance could blossom festers and dies almost immediately.
Tanya is simultaneously insufferable while commanding a degree of sympathy in light of Greg's visible disdain towards her, which manifests in him making a number of pointed remarks about her weight.
"If I had half a billion dollars I would not be miserable," says Tanya's assistant Portia, but as in season 1 the narrative is quick to highlight the limitations of wealth.
Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) has been dragged to Sicily in her House of Sunny swan lake vest to do little more than act as Tanya's emotional crutch, which initially scuppers her hopes of a fun, breezy getaway. But the introduction of Quentin (Tom Hollander), a wealthy, gay Englishman with a palatial villa in Palermo, and his cheeky chappy nephew Jack (Leo Woodall) spice up proceedings in later episodes, which is when the momentum really starts to build.
Overseeing the privileged cohort is hotel manager Valentina, who rules with an iron first. Any employees caught slacking are swiftly chastised, with her patience for men, in particular, especially thin. But like Tanya, she's acutely lonely, which stems from her inability to live her life authentically and to be taken as she is, and not as others expect her to be.
There's much to enjoy about the latest chapter of The White Lotus. White has once again penned a provocative script that enjoys unpacking knotty, dense questions that will spark extensive discussion among those watching the characters squirm and falter from the safety of their sofas. But in the five episodes we were given access to, it didn't quite measure up to its predecessor.
Certain developments and details have been borrowed from season 1, which lessens the intended effect, and some of the character dynamics are more compelling than others, giving the series an uneven feel. Valentina's arc could sustain a series of its own, and the escalating discord between Cam, Daphne, Ethan and Harper makes for delicious viewing. But Dominic’s storyline, which is concerned with generational patterns of toxic masculinity, is overly familiar.
Season 2 also lacks the bite of season 1, which largely stemmed from the ceaseless sparring between hotel manager Armond and the unbearably smug Shane, and the intensely compelling relationship between Olivia and Paula, which felt like something we hadn't seen before.
And there's also a tonal shift, with season 2's atmosphere more subdued, which is to be expected given the number of relationships in crisis, but it makes for a less enjoyable viewing experience. At the centre of that is Tanya, whose loneliness should have dried up when she tied the knot with Greg, but it's now greater than ever. He was supposed to be "the one", lifting her out of her malaise, but instead her despondency has crystallised and with that, her absurdities and extremities no longer have the comedic quality they once had.
But that being said, The White Lotus remains a delectable offering that delivers enough to keep you locked in across the first five episodes, and promises plenty more in its final act.