In Season 2, ‘The White Lotus’ Plays Sexual Mind Games to Meandering, Unnerving Effect: TV Review

For as much money and effort as she spends pretending that White Lotus hotels are the luxurious safe havens she so craves, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) nonetheless sees them for what they truly are. “What a beautiful view!” she coos at the cliffside Sicilian seascape greeting her upon arrival. Then, in practically the same breath: “I wonder if anyone’s jumped from here.” As meticulously designed by television puppet-master Mike White, “The White Lotus” is the archetypal gilded cage, luring the rich and ambitious to its shores, only to dash them against the rocks with ruthless ease.

Before the HBO series was a word-of-mouth hit in summer 2021, turned recent Emmys sensation, it was an experimental season of TV that cannily used a single location to tell overlapping stories of restlessness, lust, anger and pain. Its stellar casting and White’s directing drew out some of the best performances of its actors’ lives, especially from the ineffable Coolidge in the role of a black hole of myopic misery.  Its explosion into a phenomenon also attracted more criticism, including the well-argued point that for however deftly White portrayed the relationships between wealth and power, he was (by his own admission) less equipped to deal with the nuances of race that the season’s Hawaiian setting demanded. In decamping to Italy, “The White Lotus” mostly leaves those lingering questions alone. Instead, Season 2 tightens its thematic focus on all things sex — the kind you yearn for, the kind you tolerate, the kind you pay for, the kind you use to get what you want. In the one week “The White Lotus” spends in Sicily, sex lies thick and heavy in the air, illicit and inescapable at all turns.  The first episode’s in medias res opening does, however, reveal that there will be another shocking death by the finale’s end, a fact the show consistently underlines with ominous lines like Tanya’s idle suicidal musings and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s unnerving score.

In creating this new iteration of what worked before, White — who once again wrote and directed all seven episodes of the season — has another cast that quickly rises to his scripts’ constant challenges (credit also belongs to White’s go-to U.S. casting director Meredith Tucker, and the Italian team of Barbara Giordani and Francesco Vedovati). In one corner, there’s the quartet of Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharpe, Theo James and Meghann Fahy, playing two rich couples in constant passive aggressive competition with each other. In another there’s three generations of the Di Grasso family — son Albie (Adam DiMarco), father Dom (Michael Imperioli), and grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham) — trying to have a decent time despite Dom’s latest bout of indiscreet cheating probably imploding his marriage for good. All the while, local sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her curious friend Mia (Beatrice Granno)  circle the swanky hotel bar, sizing up every glamorous opportunity while manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) keeps a wary eye.

All of them circle each other with bated, hungry breath — except for Tanya, whose return is seemingly only due to Coolidge’s voracious portrayal rather than narrative necessity. That Tanya begins to gel into the overall picture more once Tom Hollander’s gay Pied Piper finally enters comes as a relief, if also an overdue one. Considering Coolidge’s titanic, Emmy-winning performance in the first season, it’s strange to come away from “The White Lotus” feeling like her presence — the sole bridge between the seasons, beyond the White Lotus hotel chain itself — isn’t entirely necessary, but perhaps that also speaks to just how good all the newcomers are.

To highlight every worthy performance in the cast would turn this review into a list, so I’ll do my best to keep it brief. That Plaza is perfectly dry and vulnerable comes as little surprise given her particular oeuvre of deliciously deadpan characters, but she also gets a perfect counterpart in Fahy, whose depiction of a housewife determined to remain unbothered no matter what her smug husband (a perfectly unsettling James) does becomes one of the season’s sneakiest pleasures. As Tanya’s restless Gen Z assistant, Hayley Lu Richardson gets saddled with some of the clunkiest dialogue (she just wants to get away from The Discourse, man), but she nonetheless has enough charm to get away with it. And there’s hardly any better father-son casting than Abraham and Imperioli, who bounce off each other with utterly believable obliviousness and exhaustion (respectively). If I were to choose just a couple of actors to get more notice for their work, though, it would be Tabasco and Granno, who so easily capture the naughty joy of two best friends jumping into the mouth of a hungry beast, because even being swallowed whole would be an adventure worth the while.

Between the acting, Beatrice Grandetti’s costuming and White’s usual written standards — as seen on this series, “Enlightened” and beyond — each “White Lotus” character is immediately distinct from the next. Spending time with them is never boring, which is maybe why the season takes its time setting up the players, indulging White’s gift for dialogue to the point that the first few episodes (each a solid hour long) lose some of their urgency. And unlike the last time I reviewed the show, I couldn’t see the full season this time; critics received five out of the total seven episodes, and I frankly can’t entirely say where the stories might be going beyond solving the mystery of whose bodies (yes, plural) end up floating in the Ionic Sea. (If any of them are the sex workers, let’s just say it’d be disappointing, at the least, to see the show resort to such a noxious cliché.) Making any prediction beyond “an orgy, probably?” seems unwise, so I won’t bother. Instead, I’ll just say that “The White Lotus” remains one of TV’s most purely visceral, evocative shows as it digs each of its guests up by their roots, and leave it to the rest of the season to reveal what lies beneath.

Season 2 of “The White Lotus” premieres Sunday, Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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