'The White Lotus' Season 2 Can't Rework Its Winning Formula

Created by Mike White

Starring Jennifer Coolidge, Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharpe, Meghann Fahy, Theo James, F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, Adam DiMarco, Haley Lu Richardson, Simona Tabasco, Beatrice Grannò, Sabrina Impacciatore

Photo: Fabio Lovino / HBO

BY Noah CiubotaruPublished Oct 28, 2022

The first season of HBO's The White Lotus — created, written and directed by Mike White — repeatedly circled around the theme of animalistic urges. Montreal-based composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer laced the show's Emmy-winning score with monkey screeches and bird calls, imposing an overtone of wildness onto scenes set in an ostensibly serene Hawaiian resort. Whenever the upper-class characters aimed to maintain propriety and composure, the music emphasized the likelihood of their façades cracking. 

But in doing so, it also risked minimizing the cultural causes of power dynamics the show sought to examine. Feral noises being scattered throughout the score seemed to suggest that the characters' questionable actions were all stemming from a common primitive place. "See this is the same old tribal thinking, replacing the old hierarchy with the new one," says Mark Mossbacher (played by Steve Zahn) in Season 1 after his daughter and her friend ask what he, a well-off white man, stands for. He turns to this notion of determinism again when he sermonizes to his son that, "We want to be, like, superheroes, and respectable fathers, and pillars in our communities — whatever — but, in fact, we're just monkeys."

These lines of thought bypass the nuances of history by chalking everything up to a view of human nature that is brute, stubborn and flawed. It's a short-sighted argument, and one that The White Lotus might've been guilty of indulging in had the show's score not been so relentless in mocking the characters who shirk accountability. As Tapia de Veer put it, the goal was not to elicit empathy; it was to establish a zoo-like experience of voyeurism, wherein the trials of each character weren't magnified by the music, but dwarfed by the mismatched intensity of it. This framing device — along with stellar performances and White's sharp writing — was what clinched the first season as a tightly crafted, highly stylized comedy. The show thrived off the same conceit as The Real Housewives franchise: these aren't people to pity, but isn't it something to see the privileged be so profoundly incompetent? To consider how the evolution of our species led to reading postcolonial theory by the pool, bickering over degrees of complicity in capitalism, and raising hell over double-booked hotel rooms?

The comedic aspects of Season 1 worked so well that one could've forgotten that the very first scene had set up a mysterious death, the details of which would only be revealed in the final episode. The second season of The White Lotus follows the same formula, but the opening beats feel staler this time around, more like those of a procedural drama than an acclaimed HBO series. The hints can be heavy-handed, too. When one of this season's guests of interest first enters his room at the White Lotus location in Sicily, he asks an employee about the significance of the ceramic busts he keeps seeing everywhere. "Testa di Moro," the employee responds as if eager to fulfill his foreshadowing responsibility. He goes on to explain how these pieces relate to the Sicilian legend about a foreigner who slept with a local woman and was then beheaded by her after she discovered that he had a wife and kids back home. And just like that, the season's seeds of lust, infidelity and vengeance are sowed. 

The season premiere only finds its spark when introducing the dynamic between Jennifer Coolidge's career-shifting Tanya McQuoid and her 20-something-year-old assistant Portia, who's decked in every micro-trend from the past couple years and played perfectly by Haley Lu Richardson. Tanya having an assistant that she treats like an emotional support pet, and that she felt compelled to bring on vacation with her now-husband Greg (Jon Gries), adds a great dose of levity to the season, which is redoubled when she starts insisting that Portia stay in her room for the duration of the trip. 

Along with having to weather the volatility of her employer (Tanya has several more blubbering breakdowns this season), Portia's experiencing her own crisis. "Is everything boring?" she asks Albie (Adam DiMarco), the good-hearted Stanford grad she meets at the hotel. "I just feel like there must've been a time when the world had more… you know, like, mystery or something." 

With Portia, Mike White succeeds again in depicting Gen Z without tipping too far into caricature; where Olivia, Sydney Sweeney's character in The White Lotus's first season, was hellbent on flaunting her progressive politics, Portia is sick of "the discourse," longing to escape it and its moral yardsticks. Portia starts hanging out with Albie, but soon finds herself retreating after sensing that he's too sweet and respectable to really jolt her out of her screen-induced stupor. Their scenes together are endearing, and the greatest emotional pull for the viewer might come when watching Portia venture in another direction. 

This is where the seduction of the Italian setting becomes an important symbolic force. And while variations on the first season's fervid theme song still punctuate certain moments, the score (once again handled by Tapia de Veer) endeavours more often to stir up that seductiveness. The majority of this season's drama revolves around what transpires at night, and in the shadow cast by the Testa di Moro cautionary tale, a duo of Sicilian women (Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò) move about the hotel and spin the web that connects all the American guests. 

Albie is there with his father (Michael Imperioli) and grandfather (F. Murray Abraham), both with their own histories of womanizing that make their family trip fraught with unaddressed resentment. The struggles of heterosexual monogamy are given another look through two young couples (Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe, and Meghann Fahy and Theo James) who are on a joint vacation solely due to the haphazard friendship of the two men, which is rendered marginally interesting by one of them having just sold his nondescript company for a buttload of money. 

And then, of course, there's Tanya, who, uniquely, is not being swept up by the seduction of sex, but by decadence in other forms. In one scene, she accompanies "some high-end gays" who have gravitated towards her glamour to an opera in Palermo. As she sits in the balcony of an unfathomably ornate theatre, she's moved to tears by the aesthetic experience. There's a sense that something ominous is happening, that her unfettered pursuit of beautiful distractions might result in tragedy. 

So, when much of The White Lotus's second season amounts to a montage of bottomless prosecco, palatial interiors and conventionally attractive people, without any distinctive style or critique framing it all, one wonders: what constitutes an empty indulgence?

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