Q. I was looking forward to the new HBO series “The White Lotus,” and I was so disappointed. I thought the first episode was terrible. I am not a prude but seeing close-ups of Steve Zahn’s [testicles] . . . really? The whole thing was snarky and weird and I did not get any sincerity out of the characters. Is there any reason to give it another chance?
A. Yes, I do think there are strong reasons to give it another chance. I’ve seen all six episodes, and by the end I was impressed and satisfied. You’re not really supposed to like many of the characters, at least at first. Creator Mike White, who wrote and directed the whole thing, is an unsparing storyteller, and his portrait of wealthy Americans on vacation in “The White Lotus” is particularly so. The central theme of the show is rooted in the socio-economic and racial strains between the demanding guests at the high-end White Lotus resort in Hawaii and the people paid to pamper them no matter how obnoxious they are. Even the “woke” characters in the show make missteps during the weeklong time frame of the show, with damaging results.
You raise a bigger point about TV criticism, though, and it has to do with how many episodes I’ve seen when I write my reviews. Back in the pre-streaming days, most TV channels would send critics a small handful of episodes, and sometimes — particularly when it came to the broadcast networks — only one. Our reviews were based on relatively little, and yet we charged forth with our opinions, often adding fingers-crossed-styled wishes such as “let’s hope the writers do THIS in the coming episodes,” or “let’s see if the story gets more THAT as the season progresses.”
But with the advent of Netflix’s binge approach to releasing, which took hold in 2013, critics started receiving entire seasons in advance — from streamers and, at times, from cable channels too. Suddenly we had a lot more work to do in order to issue our verdicts, but we were able to do so with more confidence. And we had to be a lot more cautious about spoilers and the possibility of ruining the viewer’s experience of a series. There’s a fine line between justifying your opinion to readers and telling them too much about the later episodes in a season.
So I don’t want to give too much away about how “The White Lotus” develops across its six hour-long episodes, but I like where it goes. HBO is releasing one per week, and only two are out now. The characters are not particularly nice people, but White ultimately gives each of them enough dimensionality to make them feel more like humans than simply vehicles for snark. And there are reasons they’re so dislikable — they’re not just gratuitously mean-spirited — and those reasons emerge as the larger point of the series becomes clearer.
I loved the show, and found most of the performances outstanding. Jennifer Coolidge turns her comic persona dark to chilling effect. Jake Lacy, so often the romantic nice guy, got under my skin as the spoiled rich preppie. Murray Bartlett is perfect — funny until he isn’t — as the super passive-aggressive resort manager. Zahn is excellent too, and that testicle shot is essential in some ways. He is, after all, struggling with his masculinity as the husband of a famous and successful woman (played by Connie Britton) and as the son of a man whose secrets are emerging.
The show is a dark take on “Fantasy Island,” loaded up with topical questions about masculinity, class, and race, without ever sinking under their weight.