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‘The White Lotus’ takes ‘Fantasy Island’ to a different plane

"The White Lotus" writer-director Mike White with cast members Sydney Sweeney, center, and Alexandra Daddario at the premiere of the HBO limited series Wednesday in Los Angeles.Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

HBO’s “The White Lotus,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., is many things, one of which is a deep take on “Fantasy Island.” The new six-episode miniseries, sharply written and directed by Mike White of “Enlightened,” borrows the premise of that ABC relic, as it follows a few weeklong guests at an exclusive Hawaiian resort. But the tone is by turns tragic, satiric, and richly and existentially melodramatic, as the batch of wealthy vacationers look out at the glorious ocean and see nothing but their own misery. Meanwhile, the hotel workers struggle to contain their contempt, with the manager, Murray Bartlett’s Armand, finding private joy in layering his luxury service with thick passive-aggression.

The cast is all aces, upstairs and downstairs, embracing the beautiful character ambiguity woven into White’s script. There is a honeymoon couple played by Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy, who is unnervingly good as a spoiled preppy whose masculinity is threatened when they’re put in the wrong suite. The more he fixates, the more she wonders if she has made a huge mistake. Connie Britton is a powerhouse as a CEO whose husband (Steve Zahn) is undergoing various traumas, while their two kids are forced to look up from their phones, for good and for ill.


And Jennifer Coolidge … Jennifer Coolidge is undeniable as a self-loathing wealthy woman who is grieving her mother. This is one of her best roles, as she filters her usual comedic presence into something a lot more painful. She’s heartbreaking in the way only Coolidge can be — broken, childlike, and steeped in pathos. Her scenes with the spa manager, played with supreme grace by Natasha Rothwell from “Insecure,” are thoroughly gratifying.

There’s a framing device that adds some intrigue. Early on, we see one of the guests watching a dead body getting put on a plane when the vacation week is over. So we know someone will die by the end, but we don’t know who or how — in the manner of “Big Little Lies.” It’s a nice structural touch, but don’t go in thinking you’re getting a full-on whodunit. Instead, go in expecting laughs, poignancy, and, in a subplot involving the CEO’s teen daughter, strong ideas about privileged white people and the dangers wrought by sloppy do-goodism. Go in expecting a pleasing, intelligent, and well-paced romp, one that definitely won’t make you miss overseas travel.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.