But creator Mike White (“Enlightened”) isn’t interested in dreams so much as the nightmare of reality. His shots of Hawaii’s palm trees, shorelines and sunrises should please the state’s tourism board, but their tropical idyll only underscores the fact that hardly any of his characters are able to appreciate the lush nature they presumably came to experience. The sun-dappled White Lotus Hotel, too, is the kind of secluded, opulent retreat that most of us can only get close to through Instagram. But its guillotine-worthy guests spend most of their time convinced that they’re not being pampered and catered to enough, goading the hotel manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett of HBO’s “Looking”), first into small rebellions against a customer, then a full-blown spiral in a textbook case of trickle-down callousness.
It’s hard to imagine “The White Lotus” on a network other than HBO, which has recently cornered the market on terrible (mostly) White rich people through such shows as “Succession,” “Big Little Lies,” “Veep,” “The Undoing” and “The Righteous Gemstones.” (Depending on your tastes, “Entourage” and “Sex and the City” might belong on that list, too.) Is there anything left to observe about the trail of casual destruction the moneyed and connected can leave in their unhappy wake? For White, who wrote and directed all six episodes, the answer seems to be no. But his characters and the performances from the cast — which, largely pulled from other shows on the network, comprises a kind of HBO troupe — make for a twisty, queasy, sweatily claustrophobic drama.
The series’ satirical mordant wit is typified by college friends Olivia (Sydney Sweeney of HBO’s “Euphoria”) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady), sarcastic, know-it-all teens whose vacation reading list of Freud, Nietzsche and Butler unnerve those around them. (Their extremely “Daria” energy carries through in White’s delightfully mean use of books to help flesh out his characters. If you’re a Malcolm Gladwell stan, be prepared to take offense.)
On the boat ride from a larger island to the more exclusive one the White Lotus occupies, Olivia and Paula size up, with rough precision, the other guests headed to the hotel. The attractive honeymooners with their arms around each other? He’s (Jake Lacy) a Dartmouth type; she’s (Alexandra Daddario of HBO’s “True Detective”) pretty enough to work in fashion or marketing. The solitary older woman (Jennifer Coolidge) who they guess is meeting her friends on a girls trip? “She gets on their nerves but she pays for everything so they put up with her.” The photogenic middle-aged couple (Steve Zahn of HBO’s “Treme” and Connie Britton) whose outward ease may conceal an everyday sort of insidiousness? Olivia’s parents, who badly want to reconnect with her and her 16-year-old brother Quinn (Fred Hechinger), not least because one of them is nervously anticipating a phone call with an oncologist about some test results.
Overlaid with an insistent, percussive score (by Cristobal Tapia de Veer) that could just as readily soundtrack a movie about a man being hunted in a jungle, the miniseries finds most of the characters ripening toward putrescence. Days after her wedding, Rachel (Daddario), a struggling journalist, discovers that her obscenely wealthy husband, Shane (Lacy), who she hasn’t known for very long, sees her as little more than a trophy wife. Rachel is also disturbed that Shane can’t be satisfied with the extravagant room they’re in, because his mother (Molly Shannon of HBO’s “Divorce”) arranged for them to stay in the hotel’s best suite, not its second.
Elsewhere in the building, family secrets emerge like crabs after high tide, especially after Olivia’s dad, Mark (Zahn), decides he’d rather not repeat his own father’s mistakes. But his efforts to be more transparent with his kids does little but aggravate his wife, Nicole (Britton), who’s already busy squabbling with her college-educated sanctimonious daughter about colonialism and privilege. Yet even their chronic discontent feels like a holiday compared with the misery that subsumes Tanya (Coolidge), who has traveled to Hawaii alone to scatter her mother’s ashes and relies on a hotel spa staff member (Natasha Rothwell of HBO’s “Insecure”) for emotional support while dangling the opportunity of a lifetime in front of the underpaid masseuse.
There’s plenty here of White’s tart sensibility, queer boundary-pushing and serrated observations of how self-loathers tend to spread their wretchedness to those around them. The trollish timing of the show’s premise — that vacations are wasted on those who least need it — certainly deserves some grudging admiration. But a swerve late in the series disappointingly sails the story toward calmer waters. Once the turbulence is over, only froth remains.
“The White Lotus” (six episodes) premieres Sunday, July 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
This post has been updated.