Vaguely, the show’s arc resembles a Greek tragedy (if they were circular).
When we think of prestige television, we might think of dramas like The Sopranos (a show currently experiencing a social media renaissance) and Westworld, or comedies like VEEP or Girls. The common denominator of all these shows? HBO.
This satirical Vulture article outlines the flim-flam hypocrisy of giving certain shows the “prestige” label while passing over others. In my opinion (which is always objectively correct), the article declines to make prestige TV a distinct and definitive category. I don’t have an issue with categorizing works of art or media as good or bad. I love a good dichotomy. The culture vultures at Vulture complain about the exclusivity of prestige TV while simultaneously excluding some shows from the category for unexplained reasons. In my extensive research, I couldn’t find a definitive list of what makes TV prestige or not. I can’t make a definitive list either. As an alternative, I’ve designed a fast litmus test to determine the prestige-ness of a television show: if I like it, it’s prestigious.
The White Lotus is an appealing fantasy for many of us because we haven’t been able to go on vacation in almost two years. I imagine HBO subscribers are in the tier of social class that are able to afford a tropical vacation if they go into debt just a little bit. They’re office workers in metropolitan cities that can barely afford their rent or mortgage, but who still consider themselves upper-middle class. Although I’m sure lots of them have been to all-inclusive resorts (though likely in Mexico or Cuba for cost-saving reasons), they were a far cry from the opulent luxury of the White Lotus.
The White Lotus is shot in an incredibly convincing and intimate fashion — it makes you feel like you’re really there. At times it is disturbing in its reality. The spooky drug trip the annoying college girls embark on is difficult to watch. So is the full-frontal nudity. The camera work also conveys a sense of voyeurism. It feels like you’re people-watching and your gaze keeps lingering for a bit too long. I imagine that this is the intended effect, as there are many scenes where the camera bounces around the main cast of characters all eyeing and gossiping about each other. There is a lack of introspection and self-reflection to the ensemble cast, who bumble placidly through scenes with remarkably little self-awareness. This lack of self-reflection prevents the characters from having any real development. Without completely spoiling it, most of the characters end up right back where they started. Vaguely, the show’s arc resembles a Greek tragedy (if they were circular).
The bone I have to pick with The White Lotus is that it doesn’t make its intentions clear. The viewer is torn between thinking that it’s a satire about the miniscule problems of the über-rich American elite, or an exposé on the real, but lofty and aspirational, problems that are unique to the upper class. A thread that runs throughout the series is the non-issue of a booking mixup for the newlywed couple. This is not a real problem. I don’t care. By the end of the series, the mise-en-scène of the opening shot of a corpse being loaded onto a plane makes sense, and is a cryptic result of this silly feud between the husband and the overworked hotel manager. This whole backwards structure is difficult to pull off. I admire the showrunners for trying, but it just comes off as tacky and half-baked.
The White Lotus is just a list of buzzwords strung together by an ensemble cast of unlikeable characters. They’re all annoying. Hot, but annoying. The rich newlywed douchebag, Shane, even mentions it: he uses “buzzword” to describe a piece that his new wife is considering writing for an online publication about a YouTuber. In this way the show is self-aware. In other ways it isn’t. The rich-person-embarrassing-themself-at-resort genre is very of the moment. About a week before I watched The White Lotus, I read a great story in the New Yorker that used the same premise but had a much better execution. The writer does in a couple pages what the White Lotus writers couldn’t do in nearly six hours, which is flesh out the characters.
A mark, I think, of prestige television is our ability to sympathize, if not empathize, with the characters. In VEEP, we watch Selina Meyer slowly degrade into a depraved moral actor. In The Sopranos, we identify with Tony Soprano’s anxieties, and we root for him, despite him being a literal murderous mob boss. With The White Lotus, none of this happens. I don’t care that Jennifer Coolidge’s character has a dead mother — she seems a rough sketch of a woman in mourning, who quickly rebounds with an older boyfriend to distract her. The whole series is a caricatured version of American values. Success, money, the freedom to jet off to Hawaii. The exaggerated class struggle is also a form of caricature. The show breaks the golden rule of showing, not telling. The resort staff, the foils to the rich tourists, verbally express their discontent with the gap in socioeconomic status using very of-the-moment language. It will not age well.
To summarize my feelings on The White Lotus: it’s good TV to fall asleep to. I’ve spent more than one night curled up on the couch after gently drifting off to the sounds of the waves crashing on the resort’s private beach. Honestly, I deserve reparations from HBO for the crick I have in my neck.