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'The White Lotus' travels to Sicily in season 2 — with meandering results

The second season of <em>The White Lotus</em> brings a new location and new guests — including two college buddies and their wives, Theo James and Meghann Fahy (left) as Cameron and Daphne Sullivan and Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza as Ethan and Harper Spiller.
The second season of The White Lotus brings a new location and new guests — including two college buddies and their wives, Theo James and Meghann Fahy (left) as Cameron and Daphne Sullivan and Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza as Ethan and Harper Spiller.

Second seasons can be complicated. But HBO's The White Lotus, which hauled in five Emmy awards in September for its first season, lends itself naturally to being extended. It took place at a resort with guests — why wouldn't you be able to do that again, exploring a new beautiful setting?

And that's what Mike White, again credited as the only writer and the only director for the season, has done. (A note: HBO provided critics with five out of what will be seven episodes.)

This story takes place at the White Lotus in Sicily. All the guests staying for a week are new to the series except Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), who's traveling with her now-husband Greg (Jon Gries) and her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). Our new guests include a foursome made up of two college buddies and their wives (Theo James and Meghann Fahy as Cameron and Daphne Sullivan; Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza as Ethan and Harper Spiller) and three generations of men traveling together (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco as Bert, Dominic and Albie Di Grasso). We also meet a couple of locals, Lucia and Mia (Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò), young women who become entangled with various guests.

Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) is manager of the White Lotus in Sicily.
Fabio Lovino / HBO
Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) is manager of the White Lotus in Sicily.

As with the first season, we open with a scene set at the end of the week that reveals that something terrible has happened, and then we watch that week play out. (One has to wonder how many deaths the White Lotus chain of resorts can absorb before they suffer a reputational hit.)

The most conspicuous difference in the structure of this second season is that it focuses on the guests almost to the exclusion of the staff. Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) is the manager, but we don't see much of her and she rarely interacts with the guests, which is a sharp departure from season 1, where proud manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) was the closest thing we had to a point-of-view character, and where his simmering rage and his efforts to run the place against all manner of forces aligned against him were a constant counterweight to the carefree guest life.

Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller in season 2 of <em>The White Lotus</em>
Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller in season 2 of The White Lotus

Thematically, without that tension between how the guests see themselves and how the staff sees them, The White Lotus seems adrift. With all the criticism of the first season and the fair questions about whether it was satirizing its rich and white characters' lack of interest in the people around them or just reproducing it, it was always clear what the show was trying to be about, or thought it was about. It was trying to be about the foibles of wealth and carelessness; it's much less clear where White is going with this story.

In general terms, the theme is sex. There is a constant sense that sexual activity could break out among almost any combination of the four people who make up the Spiller-Sullivan party at almost any time, even though (because?) they all seem vaguely hostile toward each other, and their resentments, when they finally begin to spark, give the season its most intriguing moments. The lineage that passes through the Di Grasso men is profoundly tied up with attitudes about women, the marriages of both Bert and Dominic, and the queasy beginnings of "but I'm a nice guy" entitlement in young Albie. Lucia and Mia seem to do sex work at least sometimes, although at other times they just seem to be pretty young women who improvise around rich men, especially rich tourists. Richardson is one of my favorite young actresses, and she's effortlessly charming as the frazzled Portia, who is caught between the attractions she feels and the attractions she thinks she ought to feel.

Indeed, Mike White told Vulture (in a piece I commend to you) that the driver of this season is a piece of folklore about sexual jealousy and deceit. But in these first five episodes, the thing meanders a bit. There are good scenes in isolation but the sense of propulsion toward that terrible outcome we know is inevitable doesn't come through with the vigor White managed in the Hawaii season.

Moreover, as easy as it is to love Jennifer Coolidge — and it is easy — she seems extraneous here. Tanya in the first season was an extravagant mess, but her grief and her apparently genuine desire to awaken her own spirit made her strangely compelling. But since we learned then (through her interactions with Natasha Rothwell's Belinda) that she is ultimately as careless and self-absorbed on the inside as she seems on the outside, the complex elements of her character have faded and the cartoonish parts are more prominent. Much of her story here is about being sort of "adopted" by a roving band of gay men headed up by Tom Hollander, but there's nothing about that story that seems, as yet, to be about much of anything except watching Coolidge be Coolidge. And don't get me wrong — you could do worse. But you could do better, too.

The issue with Mike White is never, to my eye, whether he's a thoughtful guy or an interesting writer. He has a lot of ideas, even if some work better than others. The issue is in part whether, in deciding to do this project as such a solitary creative work where he is the only writer and the only director, he has made it easy for those ideas to get muddled in the execution. He has bet fully not only on his concepts, but on his ability to translate them into a script and then onto the screen. There is plenty of precedent for that choice, especially in film. But these five episodes feel like they could have benefited from being seen by more eyes from more angles.

It's possible this will all come through with more clarity by the end; five out of seven is an awkward number of episodes to evaluate. But in the early going, it seems like even the most obvious second seasons have their perils.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.