The Endless Push and Pull of Lindsay Lohan’s Reality Show

I love watching Lindsay Lohan sort through clothes. It’s strangely soothing, like sitting on the bed watching your older sister prepare for a date. Lindsay sorts through boxes of things, her ciggie dangling, stopping once in a while to put on a jacket, moving her shoulders forward and smoothing down the front. She shifts her body to make it work. Her face has focus and when she observes a piece on her terse little frame, she is usually pleased. A pro smoker, she talks through her cigarettes, keeping those cancer sticks clenched in her teeth. “This is good.” She smirks. She almost laughs. Those laughs come liberally throughout the day, throaty laughs with hard-earned miles on them. When you hear that laugh, she isn’t your older sister anymore; she’s your hot divorced aunt, the one who lets you smoke pot in the basement.

Lindsay is, naturally, the star of her own reality show, aptly titled Lindsay. But this isn’t really a “reality” show. This is a documentary series. They say. Featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and directed by Amy Rice (HBO’s By the People: The Election of Barack Obama), Lindsay, which ends its run tonight, has chronicled Lohan’s life post rehab as she moves to New York City and attempts to stay sober while navigating through the fractured state of her career. Cameras document her struggles and, as you can imagine, there are many. Her life is chaos, partly because she makes it so, partly because the world does. Photographers crouching outside her apartment are her normal. She’d probably feel lost if the paparazzi weren’t there. Yes, they’re often unpleasant, but irritants, even scary ones, buffer all those internal aggravations knocking around one’s brain. And who wants to listen to those?

The paparazzi seem less the issue. On Lindsay, she seems more overwhelmed by little things, like the missing bedding she can’t locate after she unpacks her belongings, baffled that the delivery drivers can’t just fish through a fully packed semi, despite the fact that it would take them hours. This doesn’t make her so much a diva, but more a dizzy movie star, a screwball who taxes everyone’s patience. She’s charming and also really fucking annoying. She knows exactly what she’s doing and then … she loses something. Like a white couch. She’s a delightful little pain in the ass.

I’m not trying to make light of her problems. Lindsay is in recovery. Movie star or not, it’s a precarious place to be in and one to take seriously and sympathetically. Add a camera crew to chronicle your every move and your life becomes like the display window Lindsay placed her sister, herself, and the actors playing her parents in for her video, “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Father to Daughter).” Lindsay directed that video when she was just 18. Watching it now — as she wails in a ball gown in a dirty bathroom — is actually quite disturbing. It’s not just a cry for help; it’s a scream. I don’t think anyone listened. I don’t even think Lindsay listened.

Nine years later, though, Oprah listened, placing Lindsay back in that display window. In Lindsay’s first seven episodes, the talented, unsettled star has juggled the dysfunction of her parents (mama Dina is slapped with a DUI in the second episode), wrangled with her sleep-deprived, three-piece-suit wearing personal assistant, Matt, her life coach, AJ, and her sober coach, Michael. He’s well meaning, I suppose, but I wouldn’t trust him with my secrets. When asked if Lindsay is sober, he gives the longest, most drawn out, read-between-the-lines answer possible: “You know, I don’t know whether or not … (pause) … You know, the truth is that … (long pause) … (sigh) … I’m not gonna. I mean. Let me … (long pause) … You know, I’m not gonna discuss whether or not Lindsay. Is. Still. Sober. That is between Lindsay and Lindsay. I have no hard evidence that she’s not.”

There’s a lot of talk about navigating through the struggles of daily life. There’s lateness. There’s crying. There’s realness. There’s fake realness.

We have no idea how forthright Lindsay is here, where the acting stops and the inner truth begins. Lindsay is trying to control her narrative. Yes, she signed on to do the show. Yes, she’s a grown-up 27-year-old woman. Yes, she should supposedly “know better.” But, really. When do we magically “know better”? A person can fuck up at any stage of his or her life. When George Jones rode his lawnmower, drunk, to the liquor store in the late ‘60s, he should have “known better.” Are you gonna wag your finger at the Possum?

All this pushing forward and pulling back is what simultaneously bothers and entertains me, making Lindsay uneasy viewing. I don’t believe in the term “guilty pleasure,” but those exact words come to mind while watching the show. Lindsay is Lohan’s attempt to document a return (not a “comeback.” “I hate that word,” says Norma Desmond), but it’s also a set up for viewers and critics to judge her. Harshly. And often with such sick misogyny. What a drag to feel this way about a mixed up human being. How reductive. How tiresome. She’s supremely imperfect. She’s absolutely right and frequently wrong. She’s interesting. She’s charismatic.

She’s also not stupid. She’s simultaneously fighting exploitation while exploiting the hell out of herself. Why not? Though this is Oprah-approved right down to O hugging Lindsay’s grandma, when Lindsay senses something more invasive and icky, she backs off, she makes excuses. (She makes excuses for work obligations too, but I’m not going to judge.) And then the show goes back to her endless unpacking of clothes. This, she needs help with. Enter a young, pretty English woman Michael Lohan met through a guy he worked with at a treatment center. She’s hired to help Lindsay sort clothes. She’s quickly fired. She was drinking in front of Lindsay.

And yet, in spite of her resistance to full disclosure, she’s often open and reflective during interviews. She admits that her career is in danger, likening herself to a “flight risk.” She films herself and sobs. She admits to slipping up and drinking. Chatting with her crew, she’ll drop little things about her past dramas, something that could make for five Lifetime TV movies. She doesn’t go into all of it, but she knows we know. Just a sample: six mug shots, six stays in rehab, a mix-up of someone else’s cocaine in her pants, jewelry “accidentally” stolen, jail time, SCRAM bracelet lockdown, court, ridiculous replacement lawyers with Louis Vuitton briefcases, daddy on Dr. Drew, New York Times on set … For salacious pulp, Lindsay has given a lot of herself. She even painted “Fuck you” on her pretty little fingernail in court. Mean Girl Film Noir. There were times when I thought her less in the mold of the oft-invoked Marilyn Monroe (whom I’ve never thought she resembled) but tragic, beautiful, bad girl Barbara Payton. I hope to God Lindsay doesn’t go down Payton’s dark and destructive road (alcoholic Payton was arrested for prostitution) but I do want her to declare and feel what Payton titled her autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed.

Which is why that big moment, when Oprah instructed Lindsay to “cut the bullshit,” felt so authentic and triumphant for both Lindsay and Oprah. (Great television, ladies!) For all the “You tell her, Oprah” jeers coming from Lindsay doubters, Oprah wasn’t exactly kicking her ass. She was just cutting through Lindsay’s excuses and reasons and doubt without judgment, without disgust, without shame.

That’s where the show gets you. I don’t doubt that Oprah is concerned about Lindsay, but then I remember Oprah’s an actress too. An Oscar-nominated actress. She’s also a world superpower with a network to run and ratings to think about. This isn’t Bob Forrest tracking down Heidi Fleiss in a house full of birds; this is O, the great and powerful, walking into Dina Lohan’s house and saying, surprised by its domestic appearance, “This is The Beav!” As in, “Leave it to Beaver.” It’s easy to chuckle, watching Lindsay chuckle. I wonder if young Lindsay knows what Oprah’s pleasant reference even means.

With its tonier, glamorous pedigree, Oprah’s combination of Celebrity Rehab, Sober House, and even a little Valley of the Dolls is serious and hilarious, ridiculous and poignant, dramatic for sure, charged with the kind of star power that could play on the big screen if the show were directed with a little more style, a little more visual substance. No, I don’t expect Lindsay will commit a wig-pulling a la Patty Duke vs. Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls,” but there’s a tough-broad face-off quality that is sweetly exhilarating. As she’s being driven to meet Lindsay, Oprah declares, “This is your life!” She says it to her colleague but she’s really, with extra intense flourish, telling the audience. I wish Oprah would show up more often.

I also wish other directors could take over the series. Lars von Trier constantly comes to mind – Lindsay and Lars seem like a match made in heaven (or hell, you choose your direction). Who inspires such multifaceted feelings of anger and empathy than Lindsay Lohan and Lars von Trier? The darkly humorous, difficult emotions in Lindsay are primo von Trier. When Lindsay says to her philandering father at a pizza lunch, “I don’t want to talk about your two other random fucking kids,” it’s timed with a perfected black-bitter wit. You expect Udo Kier to clear their table in disgust.

The von Trier reverie makes me wish, perhaps guiltily, that the low-rated show had a second season. If you’re going to exploit yourself, do it for art. Oprah could move in with Lindsay. Let them tussle. Let them both expose themselves. Let them manage their own potential bedlam. Let Lindsay learn something and hopefully heal. Oprah yearns for Lindsay to avoid the chaos but as von Trier’s Antichrist and reality TV reveal: “Chaos Reigns.” Even amidst boxes of clothes. And for an actress, for television, for a personality, it should. Why would you film otherwise?

Reflections on Lindsay Lohan’s Reality Show