Long Cons: The Tragicomedy of Prestige TV

Shows like “The White Lotus” distract us with progressive politics, while stealing our eyeballs for the very people the shows lambaste.

Holding the gallant young man’s palm carefully, even gently, in order to tell his fortune, the young woman surreptitiously slips the ring from his finger. It’s a powerful image of the timeless gullibility of the rich, and yet, for its moment, it was as timely as could be. Painted in 1595 by the naturalist Italian prodigy Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller captured the opulence of papal Rome, at a moment when it was embracing an ethos of worldly splendor soon to find artistic expression in the Baroque. The fortune teller of the painting is Romani: the itinerant people pejoratively known for centuries as “Gypsies.” Rome’s wealth stood in stark contrast to the plague-ridden and war-torn rest of Italy, whose displaced migrants (including Caravaggio himself) flocked into the Eternal City to cheat and beg from the very rich who had played a part in putting them there.

With this painting, Caravaggio helped launch the craze for “genre painting” that began to sweep Europe; soon, the depiction of stock characters from seamy urban life, like those of The Fortune Teller, rivaled portraiture to become the dominant representation of the human figure. It made sense. After all, rapid urbanization—and the massive inequality thereby produced—led to scenes like the ones Caravaggio depicted repeating endlessly.

Nothing much has changed. Caravaggio’s gallant and fortune teller are alive and well in the second season of the HBO show The White Lotus, set in Sicily. In fact, the lovelorn hotel guest Tanya consults a “real, authentic, old-world Gypsy” to divine the future of her relationship with her husband, Greg, only to dismiss her when her predictions are too “negative.” [Spoilers to follow.] There’s no hint the fortune teller is cheating Tanya. But other locals don’t hesitate to cheat other guests. The season’s biggest winner is Lucia Greco, a sex worker who manages to swindle naive college grad Albie DiGrasso out of 50,000 euro, under the pretense of being “saved” from her violent pimp and chasing dreams of love and life in Los Angeles. And Albie, like Caravaggio’s young man, almost seems content to be deceived.

Sex and deceit, prophesy and power: If scenes like these really do seem to transcend time, what is the source of their appeal?

Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller offers one answer. The painting inspired a poem from the poet Gaspare Murtola, who in 1603 wondered,


Non so qual sia più maga

O la donna, che fingi,

O tu che la dipingi.

Di rapir quella è vaga

Coi dolci incanti suoi Il core e ’l sangue a noi


(I don’t know who is the greater sorcerer

The woman you portray

Or you who paint her.

Through sweetest incantation

She doth desire to steal

Our very heart and blood).

Caravaggio himself—or, perhaps, the art of painting—is here the real deceiver, with an erotic hold on our attention that distracts us from the real world we should be getting on with.

One might make a similar argument about The White Lotus, the latest prestige TV offering in an increasingly long line to skewer the ultrawealthy. The new “Eat the Rich” genre, in its tedious pointing out of what we already know—like Caravaggio’s fortune teller—distracts us with what looks like progressive politics, while stealing our eyeballs and clicks for the very people the shows lambaste.

These works are new bottles for some very old wine. They are neither quite tragic, nor fully comic, but something merging and perhaps changing both: the tragicomic. As Aristotle explains, tragedy concerns those “better than us,” and involves us in pity and fear that, if they can fall, we peons have no chance. Comedy concerns those “beneath us,” and helps us regulate what is and isn’t worth taking seriously.

The current wave of tragicomedy—a genre originally pioneered in the Renaissance right alongside Caravaggio’s scene painting—combines the two by dealing with society’s elites yet subjecting them to our contempt. The comic or happy ending is precisely what’s tragic; the rich’s suffering along the way is the comedy.

Tragicomic stories such as The White Lotus, like The Fortune Teller, are compulsively watchable. But they conceal more than they reveal. In fact, the show’s true politics are a kind of siphon: liquidating the labor, culture, and even identity of the poor to sustain wealth and beauty at the top.

Such siphoning is also the politics of prestige TV itself. Here, space initially given to limited series is increasingly consolidated at the top, with shows like The White Lotus vampirically extending beyond their original life. HBO first planned The White Lotus as a limited series, but after the unexpected success of the first season, the network ultimately demanded that its Caravaggio, Mike White, create more seasons, keeping the con going.

Willing though he was, White was effectively obliged to produce this season, much as Caravaggio survived by painting to order for various aristocratic and church patrons. Embodying the new trend toward franchise IP that can never die, White’s show makes such constraint its greatest theme, depicting a set of hustlers who more or less successfully make the best of their situation, alongside a cast of wealthy guests learning to ignore the real problems in their lives and in the world, embracing strategic obliviousness as their cardinal virtue.

In modern tragicomedy, the politics of self-care and informational detox are appropriated by the show’s rich from the ordinary people for whom those discourses developed. In a globalized economy like the one producing The White Lotus, rich and poor, character and viewer alike are all part of the same media system.

We love to watch the rich brought low. And yet, both the content and the structure of the shows in which this happens only reaffirm their tragic power. Caravaggio’s fortune teller, and even the painter himself (like White), merely seem in control. But in fact, the joke is on us.1

A glance at tragicomedy’s history helps clarify how The White Lotus fits in, and offers a master trope for the constant evocations of Italian history in the show. The genre first took distinct shape in the 1580s, when the Italian dramatist Giovanni Battista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido, or The Faithful Shepherd, was first performed at the court of Ferrara. Published a few years later, the text caused a sensation throughout first Italy and then the rest of Europe over the 17th century. Controversy followed, as critics questioned whether the new genre could stand on its own merits or whether it was an illegitimate blending of the two Aristotle-stamped genres of comedy and tragedy.

For Guarini, it was no mere medley but something entirely new: a way to accommodate a greater variety of human experience than had been possible before. Il Pastor Fido concerns two couples at cross-purposes, who are brought to the brink of death before the comic resolution of double marriage. Combining a greater variety of social ranks, along with a broader sweep of human emotion and situation than had been depicted in drama ever before, the genre takes its place as a quintessential Renaissance product: revamping classical models, but pushing beyond them with an emphasis on human progress and development. The genre was providential, as the happy ending was a kind of miracle, lending a retroactive unity to the chaotic and frightful events of the rest of the play. A vision of social order was snatched from the brink, a natural fantasy for an Italy in the grip of Counter-Reformation militancy and fighting between its various city-states as European powers like France and Spain vied for influence.

Perhaps the most famous artist to show Guarini’s direct influence is Shakespeare, whose last plays are all tragicomic to a greater or lesser degree. In his hands as in Guarini’s, tragicomedy was about change: miraculous conversion, the finding of a lost child, a chance storm that brings enemies together and thus creates the opportunity for forgiveness. Crucial to these plays is a greatly expanded sense of scale, both in time and space: the traumas of a generation past are central to The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, which both displace their action across huge swaths of the globe as well. Later, tragicomedy would expand even further, dramatizing the conflict between Christian Europe and the Islamic Levant, using the genre’s penchant for providential last-second reversals to depict Christian pirates who had “turned Turk” repenting at the last second, or seductive-but-virtuous Muslim maidens converting to Christianity out of admiration for the steadfast piety of Christian adventurers.

Tragicomedy became a global genre. It was a way for European nations to work through their anxiety about the larger economic and colonial relationships they were beginning to enter into. This typically involved change, the resolution of some intractable problem or some essential shift in character, so as to bring everything together.

We love to watch the rich brought low. And yet, the shows in which this happens only reaffirm their tragic power.

The modern tragicomedy of prestige programming, by contrast, is about the impossibility of change, personal or political. Many commentators point out the blending of humor and horror in The White Lotus’s tone, as well as the central question posed about whether or not change is possible: Are the gender dynamics of relationships intractable? Can they be fixed or only compensated for? Are they inherent or culturally encoded?

Either set of answers could be supported by the show’s glut of references to Italian history, from Antonioni to Puccini to Greek mythology to The Godfather. In reference to the latter, Albie quips that “movies like that socialize men into having that fantasy [of patriarchal dominance],” while his father, Dominic, retorts that “movies like that exist because men already do have that fantasy.” Seeming to champion a kind of gender essentialism, Dominic’s attitude is undermined later when we see him charge his own philandering to his father’s account, who set him a bad example: “You never showed me how to love a woman, you never showed me how to be intimate, you never showed me how to put others first.”

In this way the show shrugs at the nature vs. nurture question. For these characters, there’s no difference between the ancient and the modern, the native and the foreign. “Italy” for us today is just as much Coppola as Cicero, and patriarchy still rules whether it’s inherent to male DNA or taught to us by our dads and films. The final shot of the DiGrasso family confirms this, as all three men eye an Italian woman walking by, having learned nothing from their time in Sicily.

The most pointed tragicomic plot, though, is that of Ethan and Harper. Their felt sense of superiority to their rivals Cameron and Daphne is based on greater political awareness and cultural engagement, but is gradually revealed to be a mask concealing sexual and social insecurity. At one point, Ethan struggles to convince Harper he didn’t cheat, while she points out that the broader problem is his lack of interest in her. “Maybe something has died,” Harper muses. “We are too young to be this old, Ethan.”

As Harper potentially drifts into a liaison with Cameron, Ethan comes to echo Shakespeare’s most famous visitor to Italy: Othello, the Moor of Venice. Harper quips early on that “I think we’re [Cameron and Daphne’s] diverse friends. Their white-passing diverse friends,” just as Othello is uneasily integrated into white Venetian society by his new status. As Laura Ingallinella explains, the show takes great care to introduce the Sicilian legend of Testa di Moro, in which a Moorish visitor to Italy has relations with a local woman, only for her to realize he had a wife and child back home and decapitate him. The story precisely inverts Othello’s, who becomes a Christian convert and Italian general, marrying the local Desdemona only to suspect she’s cheated on him with his lieutenant and eventually kill her. This outcome is teased in Ethan and Harper’s case, as we see him descend into delirious jealousy and rage at the prospect of Harper’s infidelity, even hallucinating her and Cameron in the act, as Othello does. We wonder if Ethan will kill Harper or Cameron or himself, only for the story to pivot into a comic ending when Ethan becomes a convert to Daphne’s philosophy of silent coping in which “a little mystery [is] kinda sexy.” So why then does Ethan avoid Othello’s tragic fate?

The short answer is that he’s rich. But rich in a modern way: structurally, impersonally. Like the world of Renaissance tragicomedy, the White Lotus world is an insistently global one. Like that world, this one too posits that historical and political forces—the balance of global power and influence—are more important than individual decisions. In Shakespeare, that largeness was represented by God’s inscrutable providence. In The White Lotus, it is a globalized marketplace that concentrates wealth at the top yet denies that top any identity of its own, like the show’s glass onion of references to Italian cliches.

The rich win. But, like Caravaggio’s gallant, they too are just playing their part.


Out of the Closet—and into the Coffin

By Tavia Nyong’o

This anti-individualism is most strongly revealed in the third major plotline of the show, that of rich sad heiress Tanya, whose husband, Greg, takes her to Sicily then promptly ghosts her for a mysterious lover we’re led to believe lives back home in Colorado. We later find out that lover is actually Quentin, a gay British man living in Palermo, who takes Tanya under his wing, attempting to cheer her up for Greg’s abandonment by giving her the perfect Italian week. Really he’s trying to kill her so Greg can dodge the prenup and inherit her money, which he’ll split with Quentin for the upkeep of his Baroque palazzo.

But if that’s true, then why waste time partying with Tanya for three days beforehand? Why take such care to, as Quentin ominously puts it, give her “the perfect send-off”?

Somehow, Quentin seems to believe that selling Tanya on the merit of his lifestyle amounts to her consenting to sacrificing her life for him to maintain it. After a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which the heroine kills herself because her American husband has taken a new wife, Quentin muses to Tanya that “I’d also die for beauty, wouldn’t you?” The beauty in question is less personal than quite literally structural, embodied in the palazzo Quentin has sunk his fortune into maintaining, and he defends the aristocratic notion of (as his friend Didier puts it) “noblesse oblige”: “We’re here on Earth such a short time, but our houses live on, we must be good stewards. So glad you agree.”

It’s an old idea, straight from Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels (set in Italy), that the injustices of the past bend the present to their will, and houses representing that past acquire a sinister agency of their own, but The White Lotus extends the idea to all of modern life. Quentin’s personal pleasure is tantamount to the demands of his home, and Tanya dies to ensure this, like a kind of ritual sacrifice. She is identified with her money, which is in turn identified with the house and the abstract idea of beauty it represents. When Quentin says “I’m so glad you agree,” he imagines that Tanya is somehow consenting to die for beauty, that she is in her way merging with it.

This idea links up with the fantastical Italy of the show, a stand-in for beauty itself in all its forms. We might also link it to global inequality in general, in which the resources of the many—cultural and material—are siphoned for the maintenance of global finance in general, a single world market that creates and sustains whatever beauty there is. Cameron voices this ideal from the other side when he remarks, in light of a friend’s cancellation, that “if you succeed, you might make someone else feel bad, you might cause harm to all the sad losers in the world.” For him, those losers should accept their place as necessary props for others’ success. This is a tragicomic vision, akin to the miraculous conversion of Muslim to Christian sustaining so many Renaissance plays, which in practice justified European expansion into new markets.

Othello’s tragedy was that he could not fully integrate into white society, that his difference remained intact and undid him. The tragicomedy of the White Lotus tourists is that they integrate all too perfectly.

The two couples abandon any pretense of full disclosure and hence real conflict, retreating into fantasy and cat-and-mouse games of infidelity and lies, equivalent to Cameron and Daphne’s strategic ignorance of politics (they don’t vote).

Tanya dies, but it isn’t tragic. Mike White says, “It just made me laugh to think like, she would like, take out all of these cabal of killers, and after she successfully does that, she would die this derp-y death. It just felt like that’s just so Tanya.” She was always a caricature, someone who would never be happy and never learn to acknowledge the pain she caused in her wake, and her death—in which she becomes a modern Madame Butterfly—freezes that disposition into iconic permanence.

Another version of tragicomedy is what Susan Sontag called “camp,” the deflation of seriousness into absurdity through its own excess.2 Sontag notes that one major feature of camp is the abandonment of deep inner life and the potential to change for a kind of surface brilliance in the presentation of character, which is “understood as a continual incandescence—a person being one, very intense thing.” That’s just so Tanya.

Caravaggio spent a troubled nine months in Sicily in 1608 and 1609, on the run for multiple crimes including murder. In Messina, less than an hour from the White Lotus resort at Taormina, he painted a masterpiece that Teju Cole links to the African refugee crisis, and that I’d link to Tanya: The Raising of Lazarus.3 The story is the ultimate tragicomedy: actual death redeemed by love, the Christian arc of redemption in miniature.

Yet Caravaggio’s painting offers a morbid twist, featuring Lazarus as a green corpse still displayed in all its naked horror, with one arm receiving the light of Christ and stretching out like Frankenstein’s monster jolted into life. The body is caught between death and life, undead, rather like The White Lotus series itself under HBO’s Christlike compulsion to make it live on for another season.

In the tragicomedy of modern inequality, the death of political and personal hopes alike cannot be redeemed. Our cynical laughter at shows like The White Lotus is just a spasm in the corpse. icon

  1. Translating his own predicament into that of his characters, White writes a show with many of the features of what Lauren Berlant, writing about BoJack Horseman, recently called “the traumic,” in which “the beings under pressure and disturbed by what’s happened around them are usually destined not to be defeated unto death but to live with the light and heavy effects of damage, still acting, being acted upon, and trying to keep things moving, which is to say, surviving.” In today’s world of attenuated political hopes, fraying career possibilities, and persistent racial, sexual, and class injustice, the traumic makes sense as the genre for the rest of us, trying to cope with situations we cannot really change or even meaningfully engage with, snatching whatever joy and community we can find in the ruins. What White does, and what I think marks both the originality and the threat of his show, is appropriate this discourse for the very people causing the problems. The first season satirized Tanya’s pursuit of self-care as vapid narcissism, but this season goes much further, showing each of its central wealthy figures embracing the thesis uttered by cheated-on wife Daphne: “I think you just do whatever you have to do, not to feel like a victim of life.” One might want to draw a distinction between what Daphne means by “life” and what, say, Lucia does—is being cheated on the same as growing up poor?—but the show systematically refuses those distinctions, thereby making the rich extremely relatable, with versions of our own problems, without denying us the schadenfreude we want.
  2. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador), 279-92.
  3. The show’s final image of Tanya, pulled from the water and placed into a box for the morgue, silently if unintentionally invokes the many such bodies pulled every day from Sicilian waters: those of African refugees fleeing the instability of their home nations, caused indirectly by the very opulence displayed at the White Lotus hotel. In death, Tanya appropriates even this.
Featured Image: Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller.