HBO’s The White Lotus took us by surprise last summer… but it shouldn’t have. After all, Mike White crafted another uncomfortably hilarious series a few years back with Enlightened, and here, with a sparkling cast populating his acid-tongued comedy of manners, Lotus ended up garnering more buzz and awards attention than Enlightened ever did. Now it’s become an anthology, and with Season 2 arriving on HBO this Sunday at 9/8c (I’ve seen the first two episodes), the question is: Can White recapture the old magic with a new cast? Or is Season 2 destined to feel like a trip to somewhere we’ve already been before?
Thankfully, the new season does add a few intriguing wrinkles to the formula — enough to help us overlook some of its more repetitive tendencies. Season 2 whisks us away to another White Lotus luxury hotel, a beach resort in Sicily that welcomes a fresh crop of overly pampered travelers, including a mismatched pair of young married couples stuck together on vacation and a newly divorced dad trying to reconnect to his Italian roots with his elderly father and son in tow. There is one repeat guest, though: Jennifer Coolidge reprises her Emmy-winning role as spacey socialite Tanya, bringing along a fleet of luggage, her now-husband Greg (Jon Gries) and a frazzled new assistant, Portia, played winningly by Haley Lu Richardson.
Season 2 hits on a lot of the same themes as last season — rich people wallow in their privilege amid beautiful vistas, while the less fortunate scramble to keep them happy — but White goes heavy on the marital dissatisfaction this time, too. Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe play Ethan and Harper, a newly rich couple sharing a getaway with the cheerfully oblivious Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) while working through nagging issues of their own. The Sopranos vet Michael Imperioli plays the divorced dad Dominic, fighting to keep his family together while indulging in his own self-destructive appetites. Even lovebirds Tanya and Greg are now bickering, with the goofy spark they shared in Season 1 now snuffed out.
The new season is decidedly more amorous as well, with several characters on the prowl for sexual adventure. (We even see Tanya and Greg in the act, although naturally, it’s played for laughs.) But at the heart of The White Lotus is White’s keenly observant eye for awkward social interactions and ear for naturalistic dialogue, where the characters say just as much by what they’re not saying. Yes, Season 2 does bring back its murder-mystery element, opening on another dead body — and more than one this time — but through White’s emotionally insightful writing, the real fireworks come from within.
I’m torn on the return of Tanya: In many ways, it feels like a rerun and a distraction from the other storylines, but Coolidge is so much fun as Tanya that it’s hard to argue with it. (Her presence here is kind of like Season 2 in a nutshell: maybe unnecessary, but still enjoyable anyway.) The new cast is once again studded with gems, highlighted by Fahy as chipper trophy wife Daphne and F. Murray Abraham as Dominic’s dad Bert, a raunchy old codger who flirts with every girl he sees. Actually, a mischievous pair of Sicilian girls, Lucia and Mia (Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Granno), might be the most refreshing additions of all, bringing some vibrant local color to the proceedings. The hotel staff, though, isn’t as interesting this time; the resort’s tightly wound manager Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) feels too broad for an otherwise subtle series.
Season 1 of The White Lotus was such a breath of fresh air that it’s slightly disappointing at first to see Season 2 playing many of the same notes, just in a different key. But two episodes in, it had already started to grow on me, as long-held secrets and hidden resentments between the guests began to crop up. The season also has an old-world elegance and a continental flair to it that contrasts nicely with last season’s lush Hawaiian dream, indicating that this anthology could keep tweaking its formula for years to come. Even if it repeats itself a bit, The White Lotus is still head and shoulders above the vast majority of TV shows, and with the way it cycles in great new actors and tailors itself to its surroundings, I certainly wouldn’t mind making a stay at The White Lotus an annual trip.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Season 2 of The White Lotus hits on a lot of the same themes as last season, but it still offers a terrific cast and insightful social satire.