The first season of The White Lotus was originally supposed to be the only season of The White Lotus. Mike White’s first Hawaii-set installment was the perfect series for HBO to greenlight in the early days of the pandemic. Its story was (aside from two brief scenes in an airport) entirely contained to one location, a gorgeous Maui resort that was a welcome respite from the too-familiar confines of our own homes.
Like most media made over the first year of COVID, The White Lotus ignored the pandemic entirely. That was the choice that most fictional TV and movies made early on. Who knows how long this will last? Why date your work unnecessarily by referencing an event we’ll all want to forget when it’s over?
But, then the show was a big hit, and HBO greenlit a second season. Produced entirely in 2022, the new season is airing in a world that has gone through nearly three years of pandemic life. The show seems to nod to that, with Haley Lu Richardson's Portia telling a friend over the phone, "This is such a fucked situation. I feel like I've just been stuck at home, just doom-scrolling on my phone for the last three years, and I finally get out of there…and I'm in Italy, and she told me that I have to stay in my room the whole time!" That line doesn't explicitly name the pandemic, but what other event would cause you to be stuck at home for three years doom-scrolling?
Which leaves an obsessively topical show attempting to thread a difficult needle.Though Jennifer Coolidge's Tanya McQuoid and John Gries' Greg Hunt are the only recurring characters, the passage of time is signified in their relationship. After meeting in the first season, they're now married, but it seems like that development is fairly new. In the second episode, Greg expresses concern that their relationship won't work out and says that he has kept his job with the Bureau of Land Management in case that happens. Nothing in the show seems to indicate that three years have passed, and yet Richardson's line indicates that this season is set three years into a pandemic that wasn't happening the first time around.
None of this really matters all that much, in and of itself. The pandemic has left most entertainment with a difficult choice. Last year's Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That… was set in the present that its creators imagined the show would release into: a late 2021 where, thanks to the advent of vaccines, COVID-19 had been vanquished entirely. It gave the series a strange, alternate reality feeling as characters referenced the pandemic as entirely a thing of the past.
Some movies have incorporated the pandemic, but the timeline of film production makes it difficult to anticipate where the public will be in its relationship to COVID at the time of release. Some, like Tár and 3000 Years of Longing, have successfully anticipated the present moment, depicting a pandemic reality where some people wear masks while others don’t. Most movies have decided to ignore it.
But, for a show like The White Lotus which is laser-focused on depicting how we live and talk and relate to each other right now, the sidestep is noticeable. As of the most recent episode, Aubrey Plaza's Harper has referenced "everything that's going on…in the world" (or some variation on that) twice. That could be the pandemic or climate change or the worldwide resurgence of fascism or any of the things that are going on. But, given the specificity with which Mike White skewered modern culture in the first season, the show's hesitation around specifics feels noticeable.
Is that a result of the pandemic's strangeness? Is it the challenge of having your series, which was intended as a one-off, become a surprisingly big hit? Has White Lotus lost a step? I’m watching along week to week with everyone else, so I don't know if we can say yet. Maybe the show will have razor sharp insights later on in the season. But, it can sometimes feel like the past few years have been one big blur. In its second season, it feels like The White Lotus has been affected by that haziness.
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