Summer lusting: The White Lotus turns its sharp eye into sex US television

To stay at The White Lotus in Sicily, the fictional hotel at the center of the HBO show’s second season, is to feel exposed. Caught alone, several characters meet the stars of Renaissance-style wall paintings. Each room contains a statue of a man’s head that, as a hotel staff explains, honors a Sicilian legend of a beheaded seducer. A disguised door connects two married couples’ rooms. The visual motif of the first season of The White Lotus, set at a Hawaiian resort, was rot – molding fruit in the title sequence, tropical leaves crawling across the bedspreads, the stench of moral corrosion – but the second season’s is more vigorous: wandering eyes, backdoor arrangements, creeping lust.

As in the first, second season, again written and directed by Mike White, it kicks off with a dead body (actually, several) then jumps back a week. But the real mystery is how the erotic web will get tangled. Sex is both undercurrent and tidal wave: suggested with a glance; debated at the dinner table between three generations of DiGrasso men (F Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli and Adam DiMarco); bared by Cameron (Theo James) to his college roommate’s uptight wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza) in a swimsuit change ripe for internet chatter; sold by local sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and her friend, aspiring singer Mia (Beatrice Granno).

By the fourth episode (of seven), which aired on Sunday, both marriages – Harper to Ethan (Tom Hollander), newly rich after the sale of his company, and Cameron to Daphne (Meghann Fahy), consistently rich based on Cameron’s vague finance job – are strained. Lucia and Mia have visited four-ish rooms. Characters in a chain of attractions stemming from Albie (DiMarco) make out on opposite ends of the bar. These characters want to feel alive, and to be alive, at least in the Italian sun, is to be horny.

Which, thank God. I, too, would like to feel alive when escaping into television, and there are few shows on TV that do sex well. As in: shows which both understand sex as an expression of power, and sexiness and its attendant emotions – jealousy, lust, yearning – as currencies to be earned and enjoyed. While the first season of The White Lotus was a merry-go-round of use and get used that compromised everyone – a bleak if darkly funny view of being alive – with explicit nods at colonialism, the second season scales down transactional relationships to the most basic and personal. What are humans if they do not mess with hormones and need, inhibitions and urges?

It’s a smart pivot. The first season was a serrated dissection of class, a show that wrung the most out of the HBO’s prestige micro-genre of rich people being miserable/terrible that landed at the right time. The White Lotus was a pandemic gambit—a show shot entirely in one location over six weeks—that premiered after an isolated year in which many white people felt prompted to interrogate their status. The first season was cathartically fluent in the self-soothing language of privilege, how a certain class of people articulate a worldview that justifies both their wealth and sense of grievance.

The second season again understands that feelings > facts is the key to understanding most human behavior, and again fits the times. “I feel like I’ve just been stuck at home, just doom-scrolling on my phone for the last three years,” says Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), the assistant towed to Italy by perpetually heartsick heiress Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge, the one holdover from season 1). Ordered to stay in her room, she craves an escape from “the discourse” in the form of something “real”. It’s both a cliche and not – who doesn’t want to have a good time, after all this?

Adam DiMarco and Haley Lu Richardson. Photograph: Fabio Lovino/HBO

Plenty of shows have nudity or sex; Many more shows have a tide of attraction to pull viewers through episodes (it doesn’t take much). But a few shows shake down their viewers and characters of desire. HBO’s Industry, like The White Lotus, finds eroticism through sex as mutual transactions of power, though it’s almost entirely rooted in the dynamics of a cutthroat workplace (a London-based bank). Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, a follow-up bid on the success of their 2020 Rooney show Normal People (which hit because it took sex seriously as a form of communication), fizzled out with too much unearned longing. Same, too, for Hulu’s Tell Me Lies, which aimed for the heat of self-destructive desire and landed at just warm enough.

White has accurately described the second season as a “bedroom farce with teeth”. One need not aim directly at the status anxieties of rich white hotel guests to skewer them. Harper thinks herself better than vaguely Republican Cameron and Daphne, but won’t admit she feels threatened by their apparent happiness. Di Grasso patriarch Bert (Abraham) is an unabashed horndog whose displays of virility – not-so-discreet affairs, frank talk about masturbation at dinner – horrify his progeny. Dom’s (Imperioli) absent wife makes clear in one scathing call that she loathes him, for reasons that his procurement of Lucia make clear. Albie is determined to be unlike his father, but winds up entangled with Lucia anyway.

Lucia and Mia, two Sicilian women neither resort employee nor official guests, could be read as White’s correction for criticism to season one that the show underrepresented Native Hawaiians, arguably replicating the colonialist dynamic he sought to skewer. Absent both the thorny context of a Hawaiian resort and pandemic filming restrictions, Lucia and Mia bounce in and out of the hotel, loosening inhibitions and exposing hypocrisies. The two are both the most idealistic – Lucia dreams of going to LA, Mia of being a professional singer – and the most pragmatic. sex is money, access and opportunity; drugs are a tool; the work is sometimes a drag but mostly fun; Every relationship is some transaction. It’s nice, Mia notes in the fourth episode, to know exactly what you’re getting into.

But it’s also nice to forget. At least until the bodies start dropping, the Italian version of The White Lotus threads more envy into its cursed paradise. The delectable breakfast buffets, the beach clubs, spritzes, drugs, sex – all seem like a more honeyed trap than the first time, even as the waves crashing against the cliffs portend darkness ahead. The White Lotus may be less explicitly trained on wealth privilege this season, but it’s no less sharp on desire and its delusions.

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