Michael Corleone’s retreat to Sicily in 1972’s “The Godfather” starts out pleasant enough — he meets and marries a local woman named Apollonia.
At one point in Season 2 of HBO’s “The White Lotus” — which replaces the lush Hawaiian setting from the Emmy-winning first season with a White Lotus resort in Sicily, the place that eroded Michael’s soul — a small group visits the house where that very scene was filmed. In the driveway is a replica of the car. Inside it, a replica of Apollonia.
“She blows up, like blows up? That’s a little, tasteless, maybe?” says one young woman, nodding at the car.
A young Stanford graduate, interested in her, quickly bemoans the movie: “Men love the ‘The Godfather’ because they feel emasculated by modern society. It’s a fantasy about a time when they could go out and solve all their problems with violence and sleep with every woman and come home to their wife who doesn’t ask them any questions and makes them pasta.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” an older character interjects. “It’s a normal male fantasy.”
It doesn’t feel like mere coincidence that Simonetta Stefanelli, the actress who played Apollonia and appeared topless in the film, was only 16 years old at the time, which has become a blemish on the movie’s legacy. On writer/director Mike White’s mind in the new season, which premieres Sunday, are the power dynamics of sexual politics: Who has said power, how it’s abused, who is exploited and who is exploiting, and in the most dire of situations, who is the hunter and who is the hunted.
Much like the first season, “The White Lotus” kicks off with an unidentified dead body and quickly seems to forget about it, making a time jump to a week prior. It even includes this tantalizing exchange between the hotel manager and another employee: “How many dead guests are there?” “I don’t know. A few.”
Once again, the joke is on the modern viewer obsessed with binge-watching streaming, mystery-box shows, ones that always need a death to get things going. Yeah, someone died, the show seems to say, but you’re simple-minded — or maybe just shallow — for thinking that’s what’s important here.
The show’s true focus, again, is on a cast of wealthy Americans attempting to escape the rigors of daily life back home, only to realize they can’t. The big difference, which is enough to recommend the new season for fans of the show, is this time they unwittingly find themselves stuck in something resembling an erotic satire.
The only returning characters are Tanya McQuoid-Hunt (Jennifer Coolidge) the impossibly dimwitted and breathtakingly insecure heiress and her now-husband Greg Hunt (Jon Gries), the no-longer-terminally-ill man she met in the first season, who seems exasperated with his new bride. With them is a new face, her beleaguered, depressed assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), who yearns for a little bedroom fun with a hot Italian man but is ordered by Tanya to remain in her room at all times.
Also on the boat headed for the resort are three generations of Di Grasso men who hope to explore their Sicilian heritage but spend most of the trip focusing on their issues with women. There’s the grandfather Bert Di Grasso (F. Murray Abraham), who thinks his life of (what he erroneously believes to be discreet) affairs is the norm; his sex-addicted, Hollywood producer son Dominic (Michael Imperioli) struggling to change; and his grandson Albie (Adam DiMarco) who, armed with progressive talking points, assures himself that he’s nothing like the men he’s traveling with.
Rounding out the crew are two married couples: Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne Sullivan (Meghann Fahy), whose constant PDA and boasts about how they never fight draw the suspicions of the cynical Harper Spiller (Aubrey Plaza) and, increasingly, her husband and Cameron’s college roommate Ethan (Will Sharpe), who recently joined the ranks of the wealthy after selling his company.
This time around, though, rather than juxtapose the guests with the hotel’s staff — with whom this installment spends little time — it’s two young, local burgeoning prostitutes, Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò) instigating most of the conflict after Dominic gives them week-long access to the hotel.
Soon enough, as, erm, everyone’s relations overlap and become more complicated, it feels like an anaconda is wrapped around the entire resort, slowly tightening, tightening, tightening.
“The White Lotus” began as a covid-era creation when HBO needed a series that could be filmed relatively easily while adhering to strict safety protocols. The result was genius: what at first glance felt like an escape to gorgeous Hawaii when none of us could travel turned out to be the wealthy vacationers’ worst nightmare. What could be more claustrophobic than realizing you can’t escape yourself, even as you escape to the world’s most beautiful locales?
This seven-episode season still retains that central motif — our characters quickly realize how claustrophobic being stuck with themselves can be, even in a breathtaking Italian resort — but thanks to the lifting of said restrictions, more of the show is able to spill out onto the streets of Sicily and its surrounding towns. The ability to escape the escape, which naturally only invites more misery, only serves to reinforce the theme.
For some viewers, this all might feel like a slight rehash, idiosyncratic as it might be. But though these new episodes (of which five were made available to critics) meander at times, Season 2 is more tightly plotted and there are enough new ideas, with even the most staid insights heightened by White’s razor-sharp writing, for it to feel fresh.
Let’s just hope that, despite our franchise-centric entertainment culture, White will be able to stop when he runs out of compelling ideas. The new season works, but the idea of spending a third vacation at a White Lotus resort (with yet another red herring of a dead body) already feels a bit tiring. As any good bellhop knows, it’s important not to overstay your welcome.
The White Lotus (one hour) returns at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.