The writer and director Mike White has an almost incomparable range in Hollywood, having written such classics as Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, Enlightened, School of Rock, and Orange County. His latest work, The White Lotus, premiered on HBO Max last week, and already it’s been thrust into the echelon of other now-prestige TV classics, including the aforementioned Enlightened. With a cast of genuine all-stars—Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Rothwell, Connie Britton, and Sydney Sweeney, just to name a few—The White Lotus takes a nuanced approach to class in a time when affluent white women have culturally breached the “man’s world,” as one character puts it. My only question is: Where are the Jennifer Coolidge Tapes?
In a recent interview with New Yorker, Mike White revealed that The White Lotus was not his first foray back into television after the critical success of Enlightened, in which Laura Dern played a frazzled, self-centered wellness convert who grows increasingly worried about the death of the planet via climate change induced by her company’s business practices. (High concept doesn’t even begin to describe it.) According to White, he actually created a follow-up pilot, with Jennifer Coolidge starring, that HBO passed up on. “They couldn’t have passed faster on it.” He continued:
I kind of think I benefitted because of the COVID situation with them. Usually, with TV, everything is really picked over—at the beginning of any new show, every script you write is super-scrutinized. The filtration system of getting something on the air is aggravating and time-consuming. So, being able to do something in this time window . . . I thought, If they go with this, it’ll be like a boulder they can’t stop. I can do exactly what I want to do.
Now, the idea that a prestige Jennifer Coolidge vehicle would be passed on immediately seems baffling to me, but I neither run HBO, nor have the power to dictate their financial decisions. Later in the interview, White doesn’t elaborate on the premise of that pilot, nor does the interviewer press him much on the matter. Inconceivable! I need to see these tapes, Mr. White.
Enter The White Lotus, which, from the top down, reads almost like a secret Coolidge vehicle, disguised as a Connie Britton vehicle, disguised as an Alexandra Daddario vehicle. In it, Coolidge plays the enigmatic Tanya McQuoid, an indescribably wealthy woman of unknown origins, who has come to the luxe Hawaiian enclave the White Lotus in order to spread her mother’s ashes. She’s neurotic and seemingly detached from the reality around her. Early in the first episode, she becomes attached to massage therapist and spa director Belinda, played by the brilliant Rothwell. Tanya soon develops an unmistakable sexual attraction for Belinda, at one point inviting her to dinner and scoffing at the “caste” system within the hotel, wondering why the two can’t just be friends.
This subplot, mixed into the many wealthy woes of the other hotel inhabitants, is the core of the story White is attempting to tell. Two episodes in, The White Lotus has deeply entrenched itself in the class dynamics of a luxury resort. Britton’s character, Nicole Mossbacher, reveals she ascended to the top of a Google/Facebook clone’s corporate ladder amid a widespread MeToo scandal within the company. She’s juxtaposed with Daddario’s Rachel Patton, a freelance journalist from working-class origins, on honeymoon with her shiny new trust-fund husband.
In one particularly memorable scene, Rachel approaches Nicole at the pool to tell her she admires her and ask her for career advice: Should she abandon freelance writing at the behest of her new husband and his wealthy family? Nicole is immediately sympathetic, giving a long diatribe about “helping women,” only to later realize Rachel had written a profile of her for a women’s magazine, in which she referenced those same MeToo allegations which many in the public eye believe landed Nicole her job. Immediately, the resolve to help this poor woman melts from Nicole’s demeanor. Her sympathy is replaced with contempt as she lays into Rachel for the “sexist hatchet job,” the power balance between them laid extremely bare.
Closer to home for Rachel is another bubbling entanglement between her daughter Olivia (Sweeney) and college friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who she’s brought on the trip. In an after-episode feature, O’Grady describes the estrangement Paula feels in Olivia’s orbit, realizing she’s now trapped in an environment only afforded to wealthy white people like Nicole and her family. In one harrowing scene, Olivia finds Paula talking to a “busboy,” and grows increasingly jealous, unaware that Paula is searching for companionship that feels familiar to her—here, the waitstaff at a luxury resort.
These clever dichotomies are grounded by Coolidge’s aloof performance as Tanya, who is equal parts delusional and completely honest. Unlike the other wealthy patrons of The White Lotus, who are trapped in a quagmire of easily solved problems born of their class status, Tanya feels refreshingly real, both to other patrons, and her somewhat unwilling companion Belinda. In the second episode, Belinda reveals that none of her clients have ever affirmed her talents as a masseuse and healer before. She seems shocked that a woman of Tanya’s status might want to have dinner with her in public. But despite Tanya’s melancholy demeanor, the dinner soon sours, as the class and racial dynamics of their dinner soon enmesh in the goings-on of other patrons, including the Mossbachers, who sit nearby.
Despite the growing stakes of their relationship—and the frame of the show, in which viewers are told via flash-forward that someone has been murdered at the hotel—it’s perhaps the most necessary component to what makes The White Lotus work. Without Rothwell or Coolidge’s genius performances and genuine chemistry, the show might collapse into a pile of misdirected white guilt and wealthy, girlboss delusions.
It’s shocking then, seeing the work that Coolidge has put into The White Lotus, and White’s obvious love for her and the character she embodies, that HBO passed on a vehicle for her. I find it simply incomprehensible!
If anything, I hope The White Lotus serves as a launching pad for the next stage in Coolidge’s career. She is by no means unsuccessful, and I’d rather not diminish the work she’s as of late. But by my estimation, she’s long overdue for a career renaissance. If The White Lotus is anything to go by, Coolidge has a lot left to give. Leak those fucking tapes!