In the first episode of the engaging second season of Mike White’s anthology series “The White Lotus,” Aubrey Plaza gets a gleam in her eye. It’s that mischievous, slightly sadistic look that Plaza has perfected over the years, and an angel loses its wings every time she flashes it.
She’s playing Harper, a lawyer whose husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), has just sold his tech company for a ton of money. New to wealth, they’ve been invited to the lavish titular resort — this time, it’s in Sicily — by an arrogant money guy, Cameron (Theo James), and his frivolous wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy). Harper despises them instantly, and she has been pouting and casting frozen smiles across glasses of wine. But suddenly she senses weakness in their seemingly perfect marriage, and she realizes that she can toy with them if she wants, and she wants.
Harper is one of the more irresistible characters in this season of the Emmy-winning HBO show, which returns Sunday at 9 p.m. She is a spy of sorts, as she takes in and judges all the excess and narcissism afoot amid the natural beauty. Once again, White is giving us a collection of one-percenters who may or may not have souls, and Harper is moving among them while not of them. Will she maintain her sly distance, or, this being a satire, will she succumb? Nearly all of the scenes among Harper’s foursome are delectable, as the power dynamics continually shift.
As in the first season of “The White Lotus,” which focused on how the guests exploited both the resort’s staff and the locals like a gang of ad hoc colonialists, White is mocking rich Americans. But this time, he extends his reach into his characters’ attractions and sexual natures, as they keep finding themselves drawn to the wrong people. Harper, too, perhaps: There’s the resonant moment in the premiere when she catches the well-built but viperish Cameron changing into his bathing suit, and she is shaken.
Another faction at the Sicily hotel is the Italian-American Di Grasso family, headed by grandfather Bert (F. Murray Abraham), who has come to tour the land of his ancestors. He is an unevolved fellow who can’t help but make inappropriately sexual comments to any woman in his path, much like some of the men on the streets. Michael Imperioli, as his son Dom, is constantly apologizing for him — but he has sexual issues, as well. He is a self-described sex addict heading into a divorce due to his infidelities. And Adam DiMarco plays his son, Albie, who, in his 20s, is their opposite, a man who respects women and is hyper-aware of issues of toxic masculinity and consent — which come into play as he and Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) start making eyes at each other. She likes Albie, but she wonders if he is maybe a little too nice for her tastes.
Portia is the assistant to the only lead character returning from the first season: Tanya McQuoid, the trainwreck played with profound insecurity that’s matched by profound entitlement by Jennifer Coolidge. This time, Tanya, now married to the man she met in Hawaii, is terrified that her husband no longer loves her, all while forcing Portia to make herself invisible. If possible, she’s more frazzled than she was in Hawaii, and Portia bears the brunt. Luckily, she becomes the object of camp worship by a group of gay men, including Tom Hollander’s Quentin, and that may buoy her, at least temporarily (HBO has made only five of the seven episodes available for review).
Meanwhile, floating among everyone are two local sex workers, Mia (Beatrice Granno) and Lucia (Simona Tabasco), who help tease out the sexual and gender issues White seems most interested in. There are also a few resort staffers in the mix, including the hard-nosed and sexually immature Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the hotel manager, who can barely tolerate seeing the two women on the hotel grounds.
Like most things in season two, Coolidge is not as revelatory here as she was in the show’s first season, even while she is excellent. Once it changed from a one-off into an anthology series, “The White Lotus” became a formula — this season also opens with a mystery, as a number of bodies are found — and as such it is a tad more predictable. But that didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment, watching this collection of high-end guests, played by an able cast, squirm and skirmish while sitting in the lap of luxury.
THE WHITE LOTUS
Starring: Jennifer Coolidge, Aubrey Plaza, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hollander, Michael Imperioli, Haley Lu Richardson, Will Sharpe, Theo James, Sabrina Impacciatore, Simona Tabasco, Beatrice Granno, Meghann Fahy, Jon Gries, Leo Woodall
On: HBO. Premieres Sunday, 9 p.m.