Years ago while in Los Angeles for the TV critics press tour, I accidentally witnessed a tense, confrontational exchange. What should have been a private conversation between a Fox network exec and Mike White, creator of the show Pasadena, was unfolding in public. I got the hell out of there, because it was just weird.
When Pasadena began airing a few weeks later in 2001, it was critically acclaimed. A very curious drama, more psychological horror story than typical TV melodrama, it had real bite. It wasn’t an instant hit. Fox dropped it after four episodes. Later, White (who wrote and starred in the classic cult movie Chuck and Buck) created the HBO series Enlightened. And after involvement in multiple movies, he’s returned to TV with a drama that is as indescribable as Pasadena was, back in the day.
The White Lotus (starts on Sunday, HBO, Crave, 9 p.m.) is it and it is, well, funny, but drenched in ambivalence. White’s been called “the auteur of cringe” but even that doesn’t do justice to what is a brutally funny, fiercely intelligent look at rich white people dropped into paradise and, mostly, being awful. You might dislike them at first, and then you want to see and hear them more and more.
The series unfolds over the course of one week at a luxury resort in Hawaii. The guests are well-off and all are in some way annoying. There’s the Mossbacher family. Mom Nicole (Connie Britton) is a famously successful tech CEO, husband Mark (Steve Zahn) is a sulk, teen daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) is a nihilist and wields sarcasm like a sword, while son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) is a door-slamming grouch. Then there are newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who are rich, good-looking and so utterly unsuited to each other that you know the marriage is doomed within five minutes. In the background is solo-traveller Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) who desperately needs more to interest her than her mother’s ashes, which she carries around.
The resort staff are led by manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) who could be Basil Fawlty if Basil were in Hawaii and a recovering alcoholic. The spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) is the emotional core of the resort and the series, and there might be a tincture of goodness beneath the New Age babble she uses to make the guests feel good.
What’s happening here is sometimes like a variation on the HBO series Succession. We’re watching selfish people behave in ways that make you cringe but you can’t take your eyes off them. Mike White aims his satire at several targets. The male narcissism of Mark is astonishing. He believes, at the beginning, that he has testicular cancer and keeps examining his testicles. A similar but more corrosive narcissism pervades the Shane character and his wife Rachel is portrayed as a fool who has mistaken his cruelty for decisiveness.
Why watch? First, there is a genuine mystery – we know from the first episode that somebody has died, probably murdered, but don’t know who or why. In the main, though, the six-episode series is a work of phenomenal acuity about money, class, generation gaps, sex and love. Without ever being over emphatic it is hilariously sardonic. One of the year’s best new shows.
Also airing and streaming this weekend
History of the Sitcom (starts Sunday, CNN, 8 p.m. with two episodes) comes from the team behind The Story of Late Night. This eight-part docuseries doesn’t go back to the beginning and trace the history of the genre, it uses specific themes to organize that history. In the first of two back-to-back episodes, A Family Matter, the evolution of what “family” means is explored. Then sex is examined in the second hour. A total of 184 people were interviewed for the series, including Norman Lear (creator of All in the Family, The Jeffersons and other classics), Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Mel Brooks (Your Show of Shows), Dick Van Dyke, Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), Dawn Wells (Gilligan’s Island) and Bob Newhart. But this is not a nostalgia-fest; everything up to Sex and the City, 30 Rock and today’s hits are covered.
Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime (streams on Netflix) is a three-part true-crime series about one of the most notorious murders in Brazil. In 2012 Elize Matsunaga shot and dismembered her husband, the heir to a food company. The story has a particular kind of lurid heft. Elize met her husband, Marcos Kitano Matsunaga, while working as an escort. He was married and divorced his wife to marry Elize, who came from a very poor background. The wedding was itself a sensation. Then Elize became suspicious that her husband was having affairs and hiring escorts, after their first child was born. Here, the story is told from her perspective. She was interviewed extensively while on furlough from the prison where she remains inside today.
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