Why ‘The White Lotus’ was the best show of 2022

When I wrote my list over top ten tv shows for the year 2022, I had not yet seen the final of the second season in Italy of “The white lotus” — no one had. Which meant I couldn’t credibly claim the show was in the running for best of the year: after all, I didn’t know how it ended and whether it stuck the landing or not.

The title went to another HBO series, “Euphoria,” a show whose flashy experimentalism hides a deeply sentimental streak. You won’t find a bigger admirer of “Euphoria” in the comments than me, I’m sure. But if I were to do it over again, after finally seeing the finale, my list would be topped by the Sicilian spin-off of “The White Lotus,” a show that does the exact reverse trick: concealing a black-hearted and sometimes terrifying cynicism within for classic craftsmanship. .

Let it show the creator Mike White upping the ante from the show’s first season in the Hawaii set. Then the series felt both rewarding and, with its hosts-versus-guests format, impossible to replicate without wearing thin. (After all, “Westworld” had already worked through this idea in futuristic metaphor form, one season too many.) Instead, White has now created what is — in conjunction with Todd Field’s film “Tár,” which opened in theaters a few weeks ago. before the new season began airing — one of the first major screen works of sexual politics to air in the years after the #MeToo movement began.

Let’s start with the common thread between the seasons, Jennifer Coolidge‘s Tanya McQuoid. In her first season, Tanya moved on a recursive journey from A to somewhere between A and B and back again: She moved a little outside of herself to start showing compassion to a hotel employee, and then she remembered that she was rich and didn’t need. It was a complete story, but it achieves a kind of comic sublimity in being reversed, and a tragedy in being reversed once more. Tanya is first pursued by a coterie of gay men who provide her with drugs and sex with an eligible friend; after they seize her on a just-for-fun (-not?) boat ride, she comes to believe they have designs on her wealth and powers of violence. And then she murders them in a brutal rampage before accidentally falling to her death over the edge of the boat.

I had a lot of sympathy for Tanya in the first season, for all the ways she was human, including her ability to be horrible to the staff. She certainly doesn’t take it easy on her assistant this season, played by the excellent Haley Lu Richardson. And visiting the scene in Sicily to interview Coolidge, at once exhilarated and worn, gave me even more insight into how Tanya is a kind of extractive collaboration between writer and star—one in which White assigns Coolidge more than she thinks she can handle and she soars every time. (For more on this, read my profile of Coolidge from earlier this year.) I can think of little greater praise to give Coolidge than that her expression and spirit as she went to assassinate the men she had come to believe would kill her were just as intense as Natalie Portman’s final scenes. in “Black Swan”; unlike them, however, they were preceded by several scenes of genuine comedy. And Coolidge made it all seem continuous.

And here I risk doing what I think White is using metaphor to chastise: the gay men who seek to extract everything of value from Coolidge’s character while claiming to flatter her look a lot like “White Lotus” fans , praising the character actor’s iconic performance. Suffice it to say that it’s a rare satisfaction to see a performer top a career high, and that Coolidge’s portrayal of lost delusion in the face of desire fit nicely in a season where very little, for other characters, came easily.

How remarkable that the only really happy characters were those who had given up thinking things through! Tanya is nobody’s idea of ​​a philosopher, but her unhappiness flourished when given time and space to think; on the contrary Meghann Fahy‘s and Theo James’ Daphne and Cameron were remarkable depictions of the unexamined life being the only one worth living. (Fahy in particular had a great moment in the finale, making the case, to Will Sharpe’s Ethan, for embracing a blindness even to the origins of one’s own desires.) Their light-hearted pursuit of pleasure for its own sake was amplified. the crises elsewhere, including among their holiday partners. Ethan and Harper’s (Aubrey Plaza) story struck me as somewhat uniform throughout the series — a TV gloss on “Eyes Wide Shut” without the clever shifts in tone or masquerade ball as both went on a protracted dark night of libido. And the story even ended the same way, when they had realized that there was nothing to do but find each other again. And yet ambiguities only emerged in the last episode, of what Cameron meant to Harper and (especially) Daphne to Ethan complicated the picture and made it more unclear.

Something hung over the whole season; pristinely shot in some of the most gorgeous physical spaces I’ve ever laid eyes on, it reeked of a certain funk. I mean that as a compliment. Mike White can make a rough joke work, as when three generations of incorrigible men, all magnets in the sexual marketplace in the sense that they are easy marks, turn to check out a rock-topped woman while standing in line for a discount airline flight out of Sicily. It’s that it’s EasyJet they’re waiting for that really makes it sting – or, if you were to think about it for more than a tiny second, it’s that none of the three have learned anything from their time abroad or throughout their lives.

The show seemed to emerge out of the most prolific kind of creative malaise, one in which White was ready to interrogate not only our dinner party politics but our bedrooms as well. That puts it in fascinating opposition to “The White Lotus” 1, which, though filmed in high-COVID under lockdown conditions, ended in a sort of bizarre coda of conditioned optimism, as a misfit underprivileged broke free for a moment, paddling out to the open sea. Here a reverse journey takes place: After defrauding the Di Grasso family (F. Murray Abraham, but primarily Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco), the ambitious sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her best friend Mia (Beatrice Grannò) strut through town. , tens of thousands of euros richer. They’ve successfully weaponized Imperioli’s guilt and DiMarco’s naivete, ricocheting around the family dynamic and resulting in a massive payday. They’ve made it from the wilderness to—at least for a glimmering moment—the heart of society, all thanks to their ability to adapt to other people’s desires.

It’s a surprising, honest ending, especially when you look at the play as a whole. Daphne and Cameron ended up where they started because they never want to think about changing; Ethan and Harper grew physically closer to each other as a result of destroying their relationship; The Di Grassos came to understand that they will never trust each other again; Tanya didn’t just fail to find herself again, she’s dead. The only characters who can move forward, to improve their situation, are those who cynically focus on watching the board at every moment. Stopping and considering matters of the heart is what gets you into trouble every time. It’s a cool message. But at a moment when sexual mores seem to be constantly flickering in and out of sight, where sex panic and libertinism seem to coexist ever more uneasily, perhaps only the strategist gets something out of it. If it weren’t for the aching, beautiful humanity White wrote into each of them, one might wonder why any of the other characters even played the game.

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