Season 2 of ‘The White Lotus’ is Just as Juicy as the First

Another star-studded vacation in heaven (and hell)

‘The White Lotus,’ whose second season is currently airing on HBO Max, is what would have happened if you’d put an actual artist in charge of The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. There’s a reason why the reboots of those shows–reality in the case of The Love Boat and disastrously fictional in the case of Fantasy Island–have flopped and The White Lotus is the darling of the hoity-toity TV classes. Only The White Lotus has Mike White at the helm, and as writers go, he’s no Aaron Spelling.

Like our favorite anthology shows from the 70s and 80s, The White Lotus takes an assortment of actors, some established stars and some good-looking up-and-comers, and plops them down in a glamorous vacation setting, letting their personal dramas and comedies play out over a week of holiday. But The White Lotus has far more engaging storylines than “Barbi Benton has cancer,” “Loni Anderson is looking for love,” or “Donald O’Connor is a seal trainer.” Its stories delve into the frustrations and joys of marriage, the class hypocrisies of entitled Americans, and the exploitative nature of the travel industry itself. Plus each season contains a juicy murder mystery.

Season One took place in Hawaii and focused largely on the colonial aspects of the tourism industry. It portrayed its rich guests with depth, but also as sort of rich conquistadors. The second season takes place in Sicily, and has different concerns. After all, people have been vacationing in Italy for hundreds of years. Whereas season one was all about money, with some sex on the side, season two exists almost totally below the belt, with money as a secondary concern.

The primary plotline involves two millennial couples, one of them more intellectual and awash in new tech money, and the other more old wealth. They are all hot, but the old-money people don’t feel shame about it, and are almost ludicrously comfortable in their own skin. It’s quite a trick when the show can make Aubrey Plaza seem like the least-hot of a foursome. But lurking around the edge is a young prostitute named Lucia, and her musician friend, Mia, who are at the beck and call of a rich Hollywood producer (and sex addict), played by Michael Imperioli. In the first season, the island was the main commodity. Now, it’s women’s bodies. Who owns them? Who runs the show? What do men, and women, want?

To White’s great credit as a writer, there’s no easy answer. He certainly doesn’t take it easy on Imperioli’s character, or on his obvious antecedent, his 80-year-old father, played, in another great late-career performance, by F. Murray Abraham. But he also doesn’t judge them for their sins, or their peccadilloes, or whatever you might call them. Maybe they’re monsters, maybe they’re men, or maybe they’re both. There’s no writer on TV, outside of genre fare, who’s as good at shifting perspectives on characters, giving them shade and depth, making them simultaneously sympathetic and pathetic. It’s the best realism-based writing on TV since Mad Men, rivaled only by Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, both of which are very different kinds of shows.

The White Lotus is full of suspense and mystery, but at its heart, it’s a class comedy. And the head of the class is Jennifer Coolidge, as Tanya McQuoid, who, along with her now-husband Greg, is the only returning character from Season one. Tanya is like the Charo of The White Lotus, if Charo’s character were heir to a $500 million cosmetics fortune, and were deeply damaged, thoroughly neurotic, and tragically hilarious. Coolidge and White have created, in Tanya, one of the great characters in American TV history. Just watching her eat pasta is cause for pausing the show and screaming with laughter. A scene where she swallows a bug while riding a Vespa is an absolute master class in physical comedy.

We’re only two episodes of a seven-episode arc of Season 2. There’s no real way to predict what’s going to happen, or who’s going to end up where, or even alive. And that’s what separates The White Lotus from previous travel anthologies. Whatever charms The Love Boat once held, you were pretty sure that Gopher or Robert Urich weren’t going to end up floating dead in the pool on the Lido Deck. Plus, Sicily has never looked more gorgeous. Like Hawaii in the first season, White paints it as an alluring, mysterious, rich, and sexually magical place that even the moronic rich people who colonize it can’t totally spoil.

We actually published an article last year that asked: Do we really need a season 2 of The White Lotus? At the time of that publication, my HBO subscription wasn’t active, so I had no answer. Now, I’ve seen it all, and I would like to greenlight season 3 as well. And four, and five, and six. Maybe that’ll be enough. And I definitely would like to stay at a White Lotus resort in real life. Assuming I could afford it. And if they could guarantee that I’d come home alive.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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