In the National Archeological Museum of Naples, Italy, there’s a section known as the Gabinetto Segreto (“Secret Cabinet”). It contains all the erotic art and artifacts — depicting penises, omnisexual acts, bestial beings, and the like — that were removed from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum when they were unearthed. This kind of artwork illustrates the opening credits of The White Lotus’s delicious second season — human and mythological figures doing nasty stuff on the sly.
It’s the perfect prelude for the trysts, antics, and erotic manipulations that ensue. Unlike the first season, which was set on the Hawaiian island of Maui, the second season of seven episodes (currently streaming on HBO Max), written and directed by creator Mike White, takes place in a White Lotus resort in Taormina, Sicily, in the shadow of Mount Etna, on the rocky beaches of a picture-perfect Ionian Sea.
Although the obsession of the characters — a mostly different group each season — is ostensibly sex, the motivating factor in every episode is power, ambition, and the pursuit, however elusive, of happiness.
This fragile mix of sex and fulfillment (and the lack thereof) is something White knows quite well. He made a name for himself as a writer for TV (Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks, Enlightened) and movies (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, School of Rock, Beatriz at Dinner.) He’s directed films and series episodes himself and acted in both media (though not in The White Lotus), looking fair-haired, fair-skinned, and wimpy — with a backbone of steel. He has also been a high-profile contestant on reality TV — The Amazing Race, paired with his dad, the Rev. Dr. Mel White, a religious-right speechwriter for the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who later came out as gay; and Survivor, twice, which is itself a hothouse of manipulation and power politics on the beach.
Mike White identifies as bisexual, and the ensemble of both seasons of The White Lotus includes some gay characters. But the emphasis is generally on the war between men and women — and, even more, on class struggle. In the first season, the rich patrons were horrible to each other, but the working staff, with forced smiles, bore the brunt of their dysfunction. In Sicily, the hotel manager (Sabrina Impacciatore) doesn’t play as crucial a role as Murray Bartlett did on Maui (along with Natasha Rothwell as the spa director). Instead, the proletariat is best represented in Taormina by Lucia and Mia, two working girls — prostitutes — played by the delightful Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò, who is also an aspiring singer.
The two Sicilian hustlers find their way into the hotel through the good graces of the Di Grasso men, three generations of which are vacationing together in Taormina: Bert, the grandpa, played with macho bombast by F. Murray Abraham; Dominic, the sex-addicted and newly separated dad, played by Michael Imperioli; and Albie, the sweet and respectful son, a Stanford grad, played by Adam DiMarco. Lucia leads the way into the rooms and wallets of all three, while Mia is off flirting and seducing the hotel bar musician.
Returning this season (the only performers who do) are Jennifer Coolidge and Jon Gries. In both seasons, Coolidge plays Tanya, an heiress with hundreds of millions and the emotional makeup of a two-year-old. She’s curiously shrewd and self-aware but maddening, and Coolidge soaks the role for all it’s worth. Gries is Greg, an older technocrat with health issues who somehow puts up with her whining and keeps her satisfied. Between seasons, they were married — with a prenup, Greg notes — and he now seems less inclined to indulge Tanya’s whims, such as renting a Vespa to go on a birthday jaunt pretending she’s Monica Vitti.
Tanya has a long-suffering assistant, Portia, played by Haley Lu Richardson, who co-starred in the charming movie Columbus a few years back. Young Albie is at first smitten with Portia, but she has her eyes on a British hunk played by Leo Woodall, mostly because he’s not as sweet. In one way or another, Portia is a glutton for punishment.
At center stage in the Taormina White Lotus resort are two wealthy 30-something couples. There’s Cameron and Daphne Sullivan, played by Theo James, as a finance guy looking very much the buff Mediterranean god, and Meghann Fahy, as his calculating, seemingly Stepford wife. Opposite them, and the object of their corruption, are Ethan and Harper Spiller, played by Will Sharpe, as a tech whiz who has struck it rich, and Aubrey Plaza, as his unpretentious lawyer wife who is uncomfortable with all the bourgeois shallowness on display.
White apparently wrote the part of Harper with Plaza in mind, and she is terrific: her insecurity and disillusionment are palpable, while her marriage, built on honesty and friendship, appears to unravel. Cameron invited college buddy Ethan on this vacation to get him to invest his tech windfall, and Cameron does this the only way he knows how: to seduce Ethan with la dolce vita. Will it succeed?
At the time of this writing, only four episodes have been released, so just how bad things have to get before the rich retreat to positions of safety, and the worker bees have to pick up the pieces, is not yet known. HBO is issuing episodes on Sundays at 9 p.m., and bingers can view only what’s been released. Meanwhile, there are plenty of nubile bodies on display, along with dashed hopes, desperate sex, and sun among the classical ruins. In Mike White’s hands, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie is anything but surreal. Beauty, as always, is just a side benefit of cold, hard cash.