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HBO’s ‘White Lotus’ gives me hope that our deification of the rich is over

For too long, the ultrawealthy have been exploiting the wider society. At least on TV we get to enjoy watching their demise.
Simona Tabasco as Lucia in "White Lotus."
Simona Tabasco as Lucia in "White Lotus."Fabio Lovino / HBO

The setting for the second season of “White Lotus,” which premieres on HBO on Sunday, has shifted from a lavish five-star hotel nestled on a pristine beach in Hawaii to a luxury resort in the foothills of Sicily. What hasn’t changed is that the staff members working at the hotels are more relatable than the guests. 

The show’s depiction of the degradations so many of us have experienced is gripping, as is the catharsis of knowing an entire audience shares in the outrage.

Other than Jennifer Coolidge as a spoiled and clueless hotel patron, season two introduces a fresh cast of characters after the original season’s story line came neatly to a close. But the show’s themes still include mocking the elite as people wallowing in their privilege while service staff scramble to keep them happy (or turn a blind eye to the prostitutes they bring in). I, for one, am glad to see such a dismantling of the wealthy on screen, and the explosion of TV takedowns of the rich in our age of unequal distribution of wealth and soaring inflation suggests that I’m not alone.

The show’s depiction of the degradations so many of us have experienced is gripping, as is the catharsis of knowing an entire audience shares in the outrage. James Corden’s outbursts at a New York restaurant are just one recent example of life imitating the art of “White Lotus,” which uses these incidents to expose exactly how unsophisticated and unglamorous the uber-well-off really are, especially when compared with the staff who work for them with grace and dedication. 

Growing up, many of the series that dominated television were shows that romanticized wealth, like “Sex and the City” and “The O.C.” (which, I’ll admit, I enjoyed watching). Speaking on a podcast recently, however, Adam Brody, who played Seth on the latter show, claimed the program would never be made in today’s social landscape given “it’s a celebration of affluence.” 

In contrast, “Sex and the City” did have a reboot and suffered terrible reviews as it failed to navigate a changing world. Reboots of “Gossip Girl” and “The Kardashians” met similar fates as they failed to reach the heights of their originals. Some, including one fashion critic at The Guardian, went so far as to say the “showboating era of the Kardashians is over,” as audiences crave authentic, relatable stories — or "genuinfluencers" if you may. 

At the same time, critics have feted the productions that don’t ogle luxury and glamor but deflate it. Multi-award winning HBO series “Succession”  follows bickering siblings fighting over their father’s fortune and power before throwing tantrums and meltdowns for not inheriting it, despite — on occasion — getting away with actual murder. The first non-English-language film to win a best picture Oscar, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” offered a clever commentary on elitism. And this year’s Palme D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, “Triangle of Sadness,” has the audience leaving the movie questioning if they’d ever find a trip on a luxury yacht appealing. 

To be sure, there continue to be plenty of productions that celebrate wealth. “Billions,” “Empire,” “Ballers” and the sprawling “Real Housewives” franchise are among recent series that have enjoyed success — although more with fans than critics. But they have to compete for eyeballs with those who critique such extravagance like never before.

Politics has mirrored and likely contributed to this cultural environment, as politicians at both poles of the spectrum have pitted themselves against a global aristocracy as a way of connecting with the majority. On one end you have Donald Trump (albeit ironically, as an icon of in-your-face wealth himself) and his war against elites and expertise, and on the other you have Bernie Sanders campaigning against the 1% who make up a small proportion of the population but horde the vast majority of the wealth.

As most of us belong to the 99%, shows that scrutinize the top percentile are that much more delectable. Many can relate to the debt-ridden backstories of the “Squid Game” protagonists or the struggling single mother in Netflix’s “Maid.” And it’s reassuring to watch how privilege either carries with it eviscerating burdens or how those with wealth do not deserve the respect they so obnoxiously demand.

“White Lotus” is one of the shows that manages to navigate both successfully, showcasing trust-fund babies who self-implode without the viewer feeling sorry for them. For too long, the wealthy elite have been exploiting wider society in real life. At least on TV we get to enjoy watching their demise.