There’s a moment in the first episode of The White Lotus’s second series when four privileged New Yorkers discuss the streaming wars on a picturesque hotel terrace. “There’s so much content now,” says Will Sharpe’s Ethan, a sensitive entrepreneur who’s recently sold his company. “There’s billions of shows everyone’s trying to keep up with. It’s kind of suffocating.” His wife, Aubrey Plaza’s no-nonsense employment lawyer Harper, nods solemnly. “It’s like we’re all entertaining each other while the world burns, right?” she says. Their companions, Meghann Fahy’s ditzy housewife Daphne and her tech bro husband Cameron, played by Theo James—both of whom just confessed to no longer watching the news—look sceptical. “I love a binge,” Daphne replies eventually, and an awkward silence descends.
The scene is, in many ways, a microcosm of the season as a whole: razor sharp, deeply uncomfortable and hilariously self aware. The show itself is, of course, feeding into the same problem—and yet, in its depiction of the idyllic, sun-dappled bubble in which this quartet resides, it emerges as the perfect comedy for the end of the world. It’s a clear-eyed examination of the apathetic, self-obsessed super rich, but also their more socially-conscious peers who feel they are no different from the masses, but carry Bottega bags, employ housekeepers and sip Aperols by the Mediterranean on the weekend. At other points, it’s also a surreal farce which is likely to make you cry with laughter. And what else is there to do when a lettuce has outlasted our latest prime minister?
Mike White’s seven-part follow-up to his delicious satire tracking holidaymakers in Maui, which debuted last summer, lands in the UK on Halloween—fittingly, the day the nation (now getting to grips with its third leader in two months in Rishi Sunak) will brace itself for a new round of spending cuts. This time around, however, the action shifts to another one of the fictional hotel group’s outposts: The White Lotus—Sicily, where a new set of obnoxious guests and beleaguered staff will attempt to coexist over the course of a week. The first season began with the death of an unidentified character and—without giving much away—the second opens with a similar shock, before winding the clock back by seven days to when nine Americans are seen arriving at the property by boat.
Alongside Ethan, Harper, Daphne and Cameron, this includes F Murray Abraham as patriarch Bert Di Grasso, who is travelling with his son Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and grandson Albie (Adam DiMarco); and Jennifer Coolidge’s utterly ridiculous, irrepressible heiress Tanya McQuoid, with her exhausted assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) in tow. The three men are in the midst of a cold war—Dominic’s long-running infidelity has caused his wife and daughter to pull out of their family holiday; Albie, the peacemaker, radiates quiet disappointment; and Dominic, in turn, blames his father, a serial womaniser, for his own behaviour. As Bert flirts with every woman in sight, Albie falls for Portia, and Dominic employs the services of two local escorts (Simona Tabasco’s buoyant Lucia and Beatrice Grannò’s more reluctant Mia) with predictably disastrous consequences.
Ethan and Cameron, meanwhile, are friends from college, and the latter is shown consistently butting heads with the former’s wife, Harper, who seems bemused by his smarmy alpha dog act. Then, in a sequence where Cameron and Harper go back to their rooms to fetch sunscreen and swimming trunks, he crosses the line with her in a way that some would consider to be shocking and others entirely innocuous. When Harper later raises it with Ethan, he shrugs it off. Her realisation of her husband’s changing nature is as much a part of the story as her disdain for his narcissistic drinking buddy.
Aubrey Plaza is faultless as Harper—hard as nails and dryly funny, but with chinks in her armour as Ethan points out her insecurities or instances of hypocrisy, and Cameron is, by turns, hostile and oddly playful towards her. If anyone outshines her, though, it’s Jennifer Coolidge. The first season of The White Lotus saw her character, the grief-stricken Tanya, land in Hawaii to scatter her mother’s ashes. After a life-affirming spa treatment from Natasha Rothwell’s Belinda, she vows to fund a wellness venture for her, but then gets distracted as soon as Greg (Jon Gries), a fellow guest, asks her out. In the second instalment—in which Tanya and Greg are the only two figures to reappear—she’s come to meet him, now her husband, at the hotel, only to find him in a foul mood. She wonders if he’s cheating on her, if it’s all too good to be true, and you find yourself sympathising with her and rooting for her despite yourself. Tanya is cartoonishly hysterical, maddening and deluded, but in her anxieties and almost childlike naiveté, she also feels real and, at times, even—staggeringly—relatable.
There’s no shortage of laugh-out-loud set pieces courtesy of Coolidge throughout the course of the series—from an ill-fated seduction routine to her attempts to channel Monica Vitti on the back of a Vespa—but my favourite is deceptively simple. In episode two, at the glorious seaside breakfast buffet, Tanya struggles with her cutlery when trying to place sliced pieces of fruit onto her plate. A cloche falls to the floor with a clatter and other diners look on disapprovingly. “I only have four hands,” she murmurs, by way of apology. Then, when a staff member comes to assist her, she looks at him imploringly and asks, in a low monotone, deadly serious: “Do you have any Oreo cookie cake?” In that throwaway moment, we are all Tanya—and god knows we’ll need plenty of Oreo cookie cake to get us through the next few months.
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.