July 28, 2021

Television

Petty bourgeoisie: ‘The White Lotus’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from The White Lotus. © Mario Perez / HBO

Still from The White Lotus. © Mario Perez / HBO

Mike White’s scathing takedown of privilege leads July’s streaming highlights

Mike White is all about the discreet harm of the bourgeoisie. The American writer and director specialises in portraying the delusions of his entitled compatriots, whether it’s the comfortable optimists who refuse to see the country’s fractures or the grasping hopefuls who mistake self-interest for self-improvement. White has long written Hollywood comedies, including 2003’s School of Rock, but in the last decade his humour has acquired a satirical sharpness – with the pratfalls replaced by pitfalls. His new HBO series, The White Lotus (Binge and Foxtel On Demand), is his most incisive work yet. A witty dissection of the lives of privileged guests spending a week at a luxury Hawaiian resort, the series cuts to the (funny) bone with delectably sharp dialogue and excruciating circumstances.

It’s a timely takedown. White’s characters are not Trump-era zealots, but rather the resurgent and supposedly responsible progressives of the Biden administration. There’s a tech company CFO (Connie Britton), her husband experiencing a midlife crisis (Steve Zahn) and their maladjusted children, who start to question each other; meanwhile a newlywed who has married into money (Alexandra Daddario) starts to fear for her future when it becomes clear her husband (Jake Lacy) is mostly interested in feuding with the resort manager (Murray Bartlett), whose dedication to service has imploded, leaving him to engage with his former addictions. “I want somebody to figure it out for me,” complains a feckless woman (Jennifer Coolidge) who has come to scatter her late mother’s ashes, but the characters’ desire for satisfaction and purpose is tripped up by laziness and self-indulgence.

Their foibles are lanced with scathing judgments, but White is neither a nihilist nor a bully. Some of his best punchlines, which rear up out of uneasily playful exchanges, add bittersweet pathos and the shock of self-recognition even as the guests toy with the staff, and the traditional pillars of masculinity and success are toppled; every poolside encounter with a pair of precocious female college students (Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady) is a riotously dry interrogation. With the Tahitian drums (marshalled by composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer) underpinning the narrative, The White Lotus acquires a kind of looming spiritual dread. In this fin de siècle farce, checking out provides no relief.

Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is oft-explained and rarely defined. A goofball suburban dad with a face that keeps breaking into demented shapes, Robinson is the unlikely American successor to an absurdist comedy tradition that includes Spike Milligan and Tom Stoppard. His best sketches have a schematic quality: they start with a misunderstanding or social misstep that the protagonist (usually played by Robinson) can’t let go of, instead doubling and then tripling down as the ramifications acquire a ludicrous logic that initially makes sense but eventually defies reason. The show’s second season is exceptional if you’re on Robinson’s wavelength and essentially pointless if you’re not. It’s well worth finding out where you fall.

One of the biggest traps in documentary storytelling is the “1960s music legend revisits the glory days” trope: valedictory, hollow and likely to feature a cameo by U2’s Bono. Somehow the six-part Disney+ series McCartney 3, 2, 1 avoids nearly every failing of the genre. With the former Beatle interviewed by leading American record producer Rick Rubin – who alternately sits at McCartney’s feet and isolates individual tracks on the Beatles master recordings for detailed discussion – the series is an engaging mix of memoir, technical explanation and musical affirmation. McCartney has nothing but affection for his bandmates and the era, which includes his post-Beatles work with Wings, but it’s delivered with a winning honesty and touching generosity. In keeping the music of the Beatles relevant and tactile, McCartney turns what should be nothing more than Baby Boomer nostalgia into a valuable act of cultural dedication.

In brief: Dr Death (Stan) is a workmanlike medical procedural, the real-life story of a pair of good surgeons (Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater) trying to stop a very bad surgeon (Joshua Jackson) maiming or even killing any more patients on his operating table. What’s terrifying is the entitled wielding of power over life and death, and the natural reaction of the medical system to protect its own. As adapted by Emily Mortimer, who also has a crucial supporting role, The Pursuit of Love (Amazon Prime Video, from this Friday) turns Nancy Mitford’s much-loved 1945 novel into a careering comedy about the eccentric misadventures of a family in 1930s British society. The second season of This Way Up (Stan) furthers a terrific comedy about living life on the edge of cracking up, with creator Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan playing Irish sisters in London whose lives are so deeply intertwined that every interaction reveals more than each wants the other to know.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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