How do we tackle class in entertainment?
Wealth inequality within the US has grown out of control in the past few decades. Its effects are seen in every part of our society. The fringes of our political system have grown more extreme. Donald Trump’s rise was fueled by a growing sense of economic despair, of a permanent loss of social mobility.
It’s pervasive in a way that may not be resolvable. If art’s purpose is to tackle our societal issues, to at least serve as a watermark of where we are in our history, then future generations may have no idea of our age’s turmoil.
What has been the seminal work that tackled class inequality? Parasite, while striking a chord globally, was specific to South Korea. The Wire, while a critical darling, a rightful owner of the unofficial “greatest TV show ever” has still not been widely seen.
Which popular American work has attacked the major economic issue of our age?
The answer just might be The White Lotus. And it’s done so in the only way that might be palatable for a broader, American audience.
The first season of The White Lotus was set on a Hawaiian resort, following the intermingling storylines of the guests and staff. Because of COVID constrictions and other circumstances, it never fully lived up to its true, post-colonial potential.
It still turned into one of the great satirical dramas of the year.
Season 2, set at another White Lotus resort in Sicily, takes the momentum from the first season and launches it full speed into new, interlocking storylines.
At its heart, The White Lotus is a farce. Like Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, the premiere episode quickly sets up competing forces in a swinging doors situation.
There is a flash-forward that tells us that a number of guests at the hotel have died. We jump back a week and find a boat heading towards the Sicilian resort. On board are a pair of couples (including the permanently upset Aubrey Plaza), a man (played by Michael Imperioli) taking his father and son on a trip to their ancestral home, and, of course, Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, one of only two returning cast members from season one. Waiting for them on shore is an uptight resort manager and a pair of sex workers, eager to find their next client.
Structurally, it’s the same setup as the first season. Tonally, the confidence is apparent.
Mike White, the series creator, now knows the rich-asshole vacation genre he has created, and executes it with sharpness. In only a few scenes, we know exactly who these people are. We suspect how they might clash and interact, until there’s a sharp left turn. This is the magic of this series. The troupes are so well worn, but relying on them to guide your expectations will always leave you wrong footed.
The term “farce” can bring up negative connotations. The genre was designed as a crowd-pleaser for theater-goers, aiming to mix sex and comedy. Sometimes this was done for political ends, as with Nikolai Erdman’s 1924 play “The Mandate“, which was first described as the first Soviet play, but was later recognized as a vitriolic attack on the early Soviet era.
Often, farce was used to please broad audiences, with stereotypes and improbable sexual situations.
With The White Lotus, Mike White uses farce as a vehicle to attack our relationship with wealth in the United States, while still giving the audience its sex and comedy.
When people thought of the first season of the show, they assumed that it attacked the ultra-wealthy. This wasn’t necessarily the case. These were resort-goers. A fancy resort, yes, but not the illusive 1%. These people ate in dining rooms together and went to lu-au’s set up by hotel staff. What the show is attacking is those in the middle, whose apathy and moral hypocrisy leads to ignorance.
David Simon, the poet laureate of charting America’s downfall through the television medium, said it best when discussing Paths of Glory:
“I don’t think you get much from looking at the top…with middle-management as your point of view, you can look up, and you can look down.”
The White Lotus looks at the middle, or, more specifically, the upper-middle. The viewpoints expressed by these apparently awful people are not worlds away from viewpoints we hear in everday life. Viewpoints some of us have even espoused at private dinners.
We see the ultra wealthy, and we see the people that serve them.
During a delightfully awkward lunch, one of the two couples explains to the other that they “don’t watch the news anymore” and that they haven’t voted. How many times have you heard that in passing conversation?
The elderly man taken to Sicily to connect with his roots (played by the immortal F. Murray Abraham) flirts constantly with waitresses and hotel staff. How often have you had to look away awkwardly as an older relative put the moves on someone required to be kind to them?
Some of the snatched, private moments of these people’s lives don’t feel like televised drama.
A conversation between the father and his estranged wife so quickly turns into a heartbreaking fit of sobs that it catches you off guard, just as awful conversations do. The more intellectual of the pair of couples comments that the only ethnic friends the rich couple has are “white-passing”.
Mike White is cataloging the thoughts of people with power who we still interact with regularly in a way that has never been profitable or successful, all to critical acclaim and enormous success.
Entertainment in the US aimed at class is tricky. We don’t like to look at how our systems have robbed us of social mobility. We still hold onto the American dream.
What Mike White has done, over a years long process starting with the deeply underrated Beatriz at Dinner, is find out how to entertain us while making us feel sick about how we live.
The White Lotus is his grand thesis, dolled up with picturesque scenery and low-cut tops.