Why We Can’t Look Away from White Lotus

White Lotus Mike White

Why We Can’t Look Away from White Lotus

I’m a little behind the curve, but like a lot of viewers I and my husband recently found ourselves ensnared by the second season of White Lotus.

Like the first season this one has an odd sticking power. I find myself thinking about episodes long after I watched them. Judging by its recent nominations and awards at the Golden Globes, the raft of giddy articles about the show, not to mention the rampant memes about that freaky ululating theme song, we’re not alone in our fascination.

Regular readers know that I frequently proselytize analyzing what you are reading and watching to figure out what makes a story work—or not—as the single best way you can improve your own storytelling skills. White Lotus is especially intriguing to me on this level, because if I dissect the component parts it initially doesn’t seem as if the story should be as effective and compelling as it is.

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Take the characters, for instance. Clichés and stereotypes abound, from the rich playboy tech bro to the nerdy beta tech bro, the clueless rich heiress and her much-put-upon assistant who seems to do nothing but be at her beck and call, the womanizing Hollywood film producer and his un-PC father and hyperwoke son. The hooker with the heart of gold. The opportunistic hooker. The driven man-hating career woman. The washed-up lounge singer. The rich machinating wife and the cynical mistrustful one.

Plot devices are familiar too—the struggling marriages, squabbling families, midlife crises, clandestine affairs and jealousies. Stakes are objectively fairly low and pedestrian. There’s not a lot of new story ground being broken here.

And yet…

Why the Hell Is This Show So Fascinating?

Dig a little deeper and you start to see why this story is so compelling for so many.

Let’s start with character, since I believe it’s the soul of story. Yes, these characters may be stereotypes, but they are also archetypes, a nifty little shortcut for engaging readers’ attention and interest, so creator Mike White can leap right into the story without wasting any of his limited seven episodes on complex character building.

And archetypes become archetypes for a reason: They are recognizable and compelling. Precisely because we have seen the arrogant tech bro brought down in other stories, we are primed for investing in his downfall in this one, for instance. On top of that is the meta-archetype that almost all these people are privileged and wealthy. Their problems are so first-world, largely products of their unexamined entitlement—another instantly familiar characterization.

Which also suggests another reason these somewhat one-dimensional characters are nonetheless so fascinating: Most of them are pretty damned rotten and we can’t wait to see them get their comeuppance. Whether we do or not is up in the air for most of the season, but judging by last season we might expect most won’t. And yet we stay invested. Why?

That boils down to strong conflict and tension. White has layered it in thickly. There is no smooth sailing in this story. Take just one of the storylines, the two couples at the resort together. There’s friction between the two couples, who are very different in ways neither appreciates. There’s conflict within each couple—both endemic to their individual marriages and as a result of interactions with the other couple. There is tension across the couples between opposite-sex spouses, both sexual and personal. There’s tension between both men, with macho positioning, secret agendas, and buried resentments. And there’s tension between the women, who see life and their marriages vastly differently.

There is no smooth sailing in this story. The plot may not unfold with cataclysmic tidal waves of action, but there’s a steady, uneasy chop on the water that promises a tsunami to come.

Every storyline is like this, rife with layers of tension and conflict among characters who are all deeply flawed. The plot may not unfold with cataclysmic tidal waves of action, but there’s a steady, uneasy chop on the water that promises a tsunami to come—one, in fact, that was teased in in the opening episode, with a dead body we learn is just one of many recent corpses. That sets the hook of an overarching story question: Who died, and why and how? One that takes on even more resonance as we become invested in the individual players. 

Screenwriter White uses that tension to layer in suspense. We don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, the characters not telegraphing intentions with a wink-wink to the audience as they do in so many shows where we wonder why the other characters aren’t picking up on clearly fishy behavior, and viewers are in the same position as the other characters: uncertain what anyone will do (or has done), how they will react, or what the fallout may be. The final episode is especially rife with suspense as events catapult toward a catastrophic climax we sense but can’t quite predict. We’re full of questions throughout the show, suspense’s greatest tool.

Even though stakes are objectively low, they are not to the individual players. The hotel manager’s job and her role in maintaining the resort’s standards is of utmost importance to her. The escort who dreams of a singing career may just want to take over as the hotel lounge act, but to her it provides deep validation and a long-dreamed-of realization of a cherished dream. 

Pace is overall slow—but momentum is strong: Although the show may slowly unwind like an orange peel cut away in one continuous curl, the knife never stops moving, gradually but steadily revealing the flesh inside—and pushing us along an ever-building story arc.

And all that doesn’t even factor in the powerful appeal of setting: the gorgeous scenery, the excess and luxury, the vicarious thrill of it all.

Finally there are the gloriously galvanizing themes: sex and sexism. By introducing and building an incendiary topic, the writers take another powerful shortcut to engaging reader emotion and investment. Chances are most viewers have strong opinions and strong reactions to these topics, and the story gives you plenty to feel hot under the collar about.

My “How to Train Your Editor Brain” online course breaks down how to analyze anything you read and watch to improve your own writing.

I talk a lot about the profound benefit analyzing other people’s stories has for your own writing and storytelling. The more you can make it a habit to break down what you’re reading and watching this way to analyze what specifically creates a story’s effect on you—positive, negative, or indifferent—the more skillfully you can employ successful techniques in your own writing, and learn to identify and avoid ineffective ones.

Learn more about how to analyze story in my online course “How to Train Your Editor Brain

Bring it on, kids—I want to know if you watched or are watching, what you think, and why White Lotus is snaring you—or not. Drop your thoughts in the comments—and bonus points for suggesting other shows/movies with magnetic story appeal!

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Maria Bogen-Oskwarek
    January 19, 2023 1:25 pm

    I was out with friends last night and, as seems to happen frequently, The White Lotus was a topic of conversation . I just watched both seasons for the second time so I could share the experience with my husband, who hadn’t seen either. Your analysis is spot-on. The steady tension is what makes this series so compelling. I had a queasy discomfort watching it, even the second time when I knew what was going to happen. Mike White is a masterful storyteller, and I must give props to the outstanding cast. The scenery ain’t bad, either.

    Reply
    • Mike White knocks me out too! Where did this guy come from?! I don’t remember seeing his name behind anything other than Enlightened–which I actually missed. Maybe I need to go check that one out too. I like his storytelling–his voice and style feel very fresh to me. And yes, I agree the cast is a big part of why the show works so well–in both seasons.

      Love your idea of rewatching and analyzing even more–a favorite edit-nerd pastime of mine. 🙂

      Reply
  • Ray Grasshoff
    January 19, 2023 2:04 pm

    Tiffany, I’ve never seen White Lotus. And I have no desire to see it, possibly because of a faulty, deep-seated personal aversion to follow the crowd on these popular culture things. But I read your thoughts on it with interest, because I enjoy getting your thoughtful insights on writing topics. That said, I still don’t truly understand the wide appeal of White Lotus, even after reading your comments. I mean, I don’t enjoy things in which ALL of the characters are “pretty damned rotten,” no matter how well the story is put together. That’s a dealbreaker for me, because it doesn’t reflect my experience in life. Guess I’ll have to watch the show before my thoughts have real credibility, so I’ll give on that. By the way, I’m the guy who lives on Doe Run and who occasionally walks for exercise. I spoke to you on the street a few months ago after hearing you talk to someone about writing/editing while you were walking your dog. If you recall, I’m a writer/editor/proofreader too.

    Reply
    • I’m often with you on steering clear of shows with unlikable characters, Ray–I couldn’t get into Mad Men for that reason. But there have been others that did “inexplicably” grab me (House of Lies, House of Cards, Ozark), and I love analyzing those to discern the explanation as to why. Often I do think it’s comeuppance (at least for me)–sometimes redemption. Sometimes for the sheer giddy fact of their clever ways of always winning, even when I deplore their goals and motivations. Making readers invest in not-necessarily-sympathetic characters is an art that fascinates me (I’m currently analyzing the Suleiman character in season one of Jack Ryan on that level); I want to know how the sausage is made.

      If you do watch White Lotus I’d be interested in your thoughts–especially as a fellow editor/analysis wonk. And also, say hi next time you’re out and about in the neighborhood! I’m not always great with faces but remember our conversation well.

      Reply
  • Sandra Wendel
    January 19, 2023 2:20 pm

    T: You are so right on all fronts with White Lotus as only a fiction editor can observe. The rest of us who were sucked in just wanted to know whose body was washing up on shore and had to suffer through all the episodes to find out. Did not see that coming. But you didn’t mention the gay men and their role in the plot, which I thought was critical and brilliant too. Like a captivating novel that keeps you up at night, I resisted the urge to skip to the end, this show has it all with a love/hate theme set in idyllic Italy.

    Reply
    • That’s what I think is so fascinating about good storytelling–if it’s done skillfully we never see the guy behind the curtain pulling all the levers. I do love analyzing, but if the author’s machinations are too apparent a story just feels manipulative or obvious.

      Yeah, I loved the addition of the gay men–you felt that something was a little “off” in their avid interest in Jennifer Coolidge’s character…but they were so damned appealing too, and you could see why all that attention was so heady to her–we’d seen how desperately she craved it with her husband.

      We did the same thing–rationed out the episodes one per night. We didn’t want to binge but to savor. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Sandra!

      Reply
  • Great analysis, Tiffany. Another thing I might add to the attraction is two wonderful words— Jennifer Coolidge. I love watching her. She’s such a hoot.

    Have you watched the Inside Man? Intriguing.

    Reply
    • Okay, we may have to discuss this over wine next time we are together. I have been having this conversation with several friends: Is Jennifer Coolidge fascinating or not? We have many different opinions and I love the discussion. I’ll hold off on my thoughts till we meet. 🙂

      I haven’t seen Inside Man–but I LOVE Tennant and Tucci. Do I need to add it to my watchlist?

      Reply
  • Pamela Jo Keeley
    January 19, 2023 5:05 pm

    Was hooked with both seasons of White Lotus. I agree it is the tensions between the characters, the theme song perfectly capturing the menace and allure. The characters are there for their perfect holidays. Safe adventure. The theme song tells us-there is no such thing. Even if the risk is emotional instead of physical. The beta house husband in the first series oversharing cracked me up and yet endeared me. His own son, his wife, his daughter-nobody was particularly interested in what he had to say. So he said it to strangers.
    Sharon Horgan who was in the first White Lotus has her own production company, Merman. Her ‘Bad Sisters’ has just come out. Also you must catch Horgan and Aisling Bea in ‘This Way Up.’ Brilliant writing. I’m at the point of anything Sharon Horgan has touched I want to see. Enjoy.

    Reply
    • That theme song–actually both seasons, you’re right (I think they are different?)–captures that tense, “off” feel perfectly, as do the opening credits in both seasons. You make a great point–that these characters’ expectations are part of what creates tension and raises stakes: They’re privileged folks headed off on a luxury getaway. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition. 🙂

      I agree on both Steve Zahn (I have LONG been a fan, and wish we saw him in more) and Sharon Horgan. I haven’t seen either of her shows you mention–but I’m adding them to our watchlist–thanks!

      Reply
  • Another series that is a good study. The Patient with Steve Carrell. The way the pot remains on the boil-masterful.
    Also The Serpent Queen and The Great ( I love the historical mash w cool in this. How DO they make that work. I’m a history nerd and yet I love it.)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRmmqqVFweM

    Reply
    • I love Steve Carrell so much. I have never even heard of this series and am going to chase it down now! Haven’t seen either of the others you mention either–thanks for such good recommendations. I find I watch an astonishing amount of TV these days, but I think of it as career R&D, since I can’t help analyzing it all. 🙂

      Reply
  • I sense that Mike has instinctively sat down and interviewed his main story characters. After understanding their individual backstories-desires, fears, misbeliefs, etc.-and weaving that with his acceptance of his own internal conflicts, motivations, limitations, false assumptions, self-doubts, passions, etc., has resulted in writing relatable characters.

    Reply

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