Time Bomb

Lindsay Lohan’s Reality Show Is the Most Stressful Thing on TV

The Oprah Winfrey-produced Lindsay Lohan docuseries is the most anxiety-inducing hour of television I’ve ever seen. And I loved every second of it.

Oprah Winfrey Network

Have you ever been in the same room with someone who was holding a grenade? You know they're probably not going to pull the pin and it’s probably not going to explode. But that knowledge does nothing to slow down the dangerously fast pace of your heart beating as you stand paralyzed in fear. Sunday night, Oprah was holding that grenade. And that grenade was Lindsay Lohan.

Lindsay was the most stressful hour of television I’ve ever seen. And I loved every second of it.

Credit Winfrey, first, with adding gravitas and objectivity to what is ultimately a blatant and shameless grab for ratings. Lindsay follows everyone’s favorite fallen starlet in the days after leaving rehab as she tries to balance leading a sober life with jumpstarting her acting career. It’s a backstage pass to the zoo exhibit we’ve all been clamoring for since Lohan’s downward spiral first started all those years ago. The frightening part of the first hour—and, likely, the rest of the show’s run—is the anxiety we feel as we wait for the tiger to strike.

That’s because Lindsay Lohan is about as unpredictable a wild animal, a character assessment she proved in the Lindsay premiere. She smiled optimistically and spouted sound-byte-ready affirmations like, “I have this inner peace that I found,” and, “I’m excited to start this new chapter,” during her staged confessionals, for which she was on her best behavior. But candid moments saw the actress as turbulent as ever—manically popping Tic Tacs, ranting a mile a minute, and showing a stress-inducing talent for tuning out reality in order to foster an impressive lack of self-awareness as she attempts to paint herself as a hirable, reformed person.

The Winfrey touch of it all, though, and thus the genius of Lindsay, is the pedigree of the perspective it takes, elevating it from gossip-rag gawking and exploitation and elevating us above the seedy paparazzi we see lurking around Lohan in nearly every shot.

The series is directed by Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Amy Rice, who gives it the necessary rawness to make you feel like you’re actually watching a person being her authentic self, rather than a Keeping Up With the Kardashians-like glossy series that doubles as image rehab. The result is that Lindsay really could, ultimately, accomplish the goal that Lohan candidly discusses with Winfrey in the premiere’s opening minutes. “Your willingness to share your path and your struggles, your wounds and your triumphs, only helps people see theirs so clearly,” Winfrey says. “That’s why this is so interesting to me,” Lohan responds.

Rice also does her job convincing us why this—a docuseries about a girl who seems to have thwarted all goodwill we’ve afforded her—should seem interesting to us, too.

Immediately after showing Lohan’s cheery vow to Winfrey to do better and turn her life around, the episode cuts to footage of Lohan’s earlier, happier days, before recounting her lengthy rap sheet and recounting all the mistakes she’s made. Man-on-street interviews meant to give the public’s perception of Lohan showed anonymous people say with almost devious glee things like, “I used to be a fan of her work. Not so much recently. She kind of fell off the deep end.” That’s the hook here: we’re supposed to be invested in this look at Lohan’s struggle to make a comeback because it really will be a struggle. we’ve already invested in her demise. we’ve maybe even relished it.

We also know far too much about it—too much about her vices, too much about her personal life, too much about her demons and her struggles and her downfall. That’s exactly what makes watching her in Lindsay such a stressful experience.

The whole series plays out with a time stamp in the bottom left hand corner revealing how many days it's been since she's left rehab, turning the whole series into some extended ticking time bomb. It’s like those scenes in movies where a bomb squad has to choose which of three wires to cut to diffuse an explosive. Choose the wrong wire, and the whole thing blows up. Each new scene in Lindsay introduces a new wire. We watch hoping she doesn’t cut the wrong one.

We meet her sober coach, and wonder if he can keep her straight. She spends time with her mother, Dina, causing a cold sweat in anyone who remembers how much of a trigger Lohan’s family has been for her in the past. She goes on a film shoot and wars with the director. She goes to a fashion show and a champagne glass is framed in the shot like the serial killer in a horror film stalking its prey.

As the episode builds, so does Lohan’s tension. We’re watching and waiting for her to unravel, but in actuality she only becomes more wound up. It makes for a disquieting viewing experience. At one point she’s so worked up in a rant that she very visibly seems to have forgotten what it is she is ranting about. Not being able to get into her apartment? Her father lying to her in the past? The photographer trying to sneak a shot of her? Eventually she ends up screaming at her real estate agent, “I’m not Oprah!” On Oprah Winfrey’s show that Oprah Winfrey was producing on the Oprah Winfrey network. Can’t make this up.

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The things Lindsay shows Lohan doing should be trite and calming. She goes house hunting. She cleans out her storage unit. She packs boxes. She unpacks boxes. It was absolutely transfixing. Bear with me, but the whole thing had a Blue Jasmine-like quality to it. The girl is going about her everyday life, but you’re certain that at some point she’s going to break. You don’t want to be there to see it when she does. But there’s no way you’re going to turn away.

But here’s the thing, and this may be blind optimism. What Lindsay succeeds most at is, for the first time in years, convincing us that Lindsay Lohan isn’t a name in an Us Weekly headline or a joke in a late-night monologue or a character in a drama so wild it can’t possibly be real life. She’s a human. She’s a very fragile, volatile, slightly selfish human. But she’s one who's working really hard to find peace in the eye of the very large, very tumultuous storm that surrounds her and is causing those dangerous traits. She has a t-shirt that says “Fetch,” the catchphrase from Mean Girls! I mean, how great is that!

The end of the Lindsay premiere was nowhere near as captivating as the sizzle reel teasing what’s to come on the series: her sober coach calling into question her sobriety, a fight with her father, a stern talking to by Oprah for not showing up to film where she’s supposed to. It all makes you wonder whether this human, a girl trying to rebuild her life, is strong enough to star in a high-pressure reality show like this.

“You need to cut the bullshit,” Winfrey tells her in that sizzle reel. Lohan does not, in fact, crap her pants when Oprah Winfrey tells her that. If that’s not strength then I don’t know what is.