The bloom on “The White Lotus” is still fresh.
The Emmy-winning HBO series was a surprise last year, a tiny little series without many big stars or well-known franchise. But after becoming a summer sensation and walking away with 10 Emmy awards last month, no one can think of the second season of “Lotus” (premiering Sunday, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★★½ out of four) as under the radar.
But the pressure of all the acclaim clearly hasn’t dimmed the brilliance of creator/writer/director Mike White’s (“Enlightened”) scripts, which are just as sharp as ever. The sendup of the upper classes returns at a new White Lotus resort on the beautiful shores of Sicily, after last year’s romp in Hawaii. It feels apt that this season, which features mostly new actors and characters, is debuting as the weather turns nippy, so crisp and cutting is the satire. If the first season emphasized the luridness of the white, wealthy elite, the second is a master class in the dangers and prevalence of toxic (also usually white and wealthy) men.
Both seasons take place over the course of a week, begin with the revelation of a mysterious death and then flash back to the guests’ waterborne arrivals. This year’s crew includes a multigenerational trio (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco) on a trip to discover their family roots; two young married couples (Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe, and Theo James and Meghann Fahy); and Jennifer Coolidge’s heiress Tanya, with her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) in tow. Tanya is one of only two returning characters from Season 1 – the other is her vacation fling-turned-unhappy-husband Greg (Jon Gries). The guests frequently run into Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), two young locals who dabble in sex work.
Perhaps a little less funny and with a little more cringe, the series highlights the cracks in its characters’ lives without delay. The DiMarco men are reeling from the infidelity of Dom (Imperioli), which has torn the family apart. The two couples – the husbands were college roommates – are more frenemies than friends. Greg treats Tanya with disdain, and Tanya treats her beleaguered assistant like a pet, ordering her to stay in the room or on the couch (and away from Greg) to be on-demand emotional support.
The brilliance of “Lotus” lies in the delicate dance of White’s scripts in taking ordinary conversations to the edges of incivility. Every conflicting conversation feels as though it could lead to physical blows, and it’s entirely possible that one might, considering the death looming at the end of the vacationers’ stay.
Without becoming pedantic or dull, the series returns to the idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, operating on different wavelengths, with sometimes opposing goals and morals. This comes up in nearly every subplot, but most often with Lucia and Mia, who frequently change their personal feelings about sex work, and are treated with varying degrees of respect by the men and women in the hotel.
The series is littered with casually toxic men: Finance bro Cam (James) gets naked in front of his friend’s wife Harper (Plaza) as a display of power; Dom claims sex addiction causes him to cheat; his son Albie (DiMarco) claims he’s a “nice guy” without always acting like one; and his dad Bert (Abraham) leers at every woman who walks by. But despite all the talk of the patriarchy and feminism, no one is solving misogyny in “Lotus.” White doesn’t offer solutions; he points at the problem.
If the first season established the comedic genius of Murray Bartlett, who played Armond, the harangued hotel manager, this year Fahy (“The Bold Type”) is the breakout star. Her Daphne is a hapless but happy housewife on the outside, but riddled with sadness and anger beneath. Fahy is effervescent, balancing Daphne’s performative façade with her darker side easily and lighting up every scene she’s in. Similarly, Italian actresses Tabasco and Grannò are magnetic, as they work (and con) their way through the luxury hotel.
Did “Lotus” really need a follow-up season? Probably not. Last year’s six episodes were near flawless television, and returning ran the risk of losing the expectations game. But the new seven-episode season is comparable, and most importantly keeps the tone alive. If more sophomore seasons could learn from the “Lotus” example, television would be better for it.
Season 1 review:HBO’s raucous comedy ‘The White Lotus’ is your summer must-watch