In a time when promises of “escape” are increasingly appealing, reality TV continues to provide a quasi-effective pathway, even as it bleeds unpleasantly into the thing we’re running from. In top-tier shows like Vanderpump Rules, we are not asked to examine reality as it stands, nor are we propelled into an imaginary realm in which we do not exist at all; instead, we peer into a carefully designed otherworld that looks just real enough, and that reminds us of ourselves just enough. Once we memorize the slightly different laws of this real-enough landscape, a type of hypnagogia is achieved as the viewer is gently suspended between two worlds, protected, god-like, judging ruthlessly.
MTV’s Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club, premiering on January 8, does… not do this. I can’t entirely say what it does do, beyond encasing my whole body in a film of anxiety.
The show opens with Lohan on a balcony, red hair rustling in the wind. The sun is setting. “I’m Lindsay Lohan,” a familiarly hoarse voiceover intones. She glances over her right shoulder into the camera, baring her teeth in a tepid smile. “I lived my life in the public eye,” the voiceover continues, “and I know the ups and downs of being in the spotlight.” Arrested again! A news man says. Footage rolls of court appearances and Lohan getting hounded by paparazzi. Lohan reportedly a nightmare on set!
Suddenly, we are in Mykonos, one of several enclaves of insulated wealth in which Lohan has allegedly found a new beginning. (She lives in Dubai, where paparazzi are outlawed, and where she is reportedly building an island called Lohan Island.) Soothing island-y music plays. The past is in the past. The sea is a radiant turquoise, and Lohan stands alone on a boat, taking a selfie. It is heaven, if heaven were a little bit terrible, and located uncomfortably close to hell. “I’ve always loved the beauty and serenity I feel when I’m here,” the voiceover explains. Shiny be-thonged butts glide in and out of the waves like seals. Lohan says she wanted to reclaim the spot where she was videotaped being attacked by her ex-fiancé in 2016 (abuse, she’s rightly noted, that no one cared much about at the time). “So I decided to open Lohan Beach House. Mykonos is the place to be. It’s a place for everyone. It’s beautiful, it’s open-minded, and most of all, it’s safe.”
The setup of this show is as follows: Lindsay Lohan is building an empire of international clubs, alongside her “creative partner” PANOS SPENTZOS. You may not have heard of PANOS SPENTZOS, but please know that he is very chic and absolutely not using Lohan as a stepping stone to grow his modest Instagram following. To assist in the opening of Lohan Beach House in Mykonos, a group of hard-bodied “nightlife industry professionals” is flown in from the U.S. to serve as the club’s “ambassadors.” Among them is a douche named Brent and a college student named Gabi who brags about her GPA and is forced to dye her blue hair pink so as not to match with the Lohan Beach House DJ (“this is not Avatar,” PANOS SPENTZOS sniffs). The cast primarily seems confused; it’s never fully explained what an “ambassador” must do, as they are not servers, and they are not dancers, and they are not supposed to be partying with the clientele, except when intentionally farmed out to horny VIP guests named Natasha. But what they absolutely must not do is fuck this up for Lindsay.
Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club is weird, first and foremost, and in that sense it will probably satisfy many of its viewers. When Lohan is speaking in decipherable sentences—which is not always—she sort of sounds like a mob boss, or a Trump. “We put them in a very nice house to show them what they get if they work with Lohan brand,” she explains of the ambassadors. “The second you become emotional, I am like Putin,” she later vents to her business partner. “I have no emotion when it comes to money and business.” Her accents glide between Long Island and little hints of the strange speaking voice she’s displayed on-and-off in recent years, which she explained in 2016 as “a mixture of most of the languages I can understand or am trying to learn.”
The show is not primarily about Lohan’s life, a fact she seems to appreciate. “Just like everyone watches me, I’m watching [the ambassadors],” she says. “The cameras flip.” Indeed, even Lohan’s face often seems to have been put in flattering soft-focus. But flipped or no, the cameras capture plenty, some of it incomprehensible. “I just feel like I don’t have time for people making their own intentions on working with me and branding what my future is,” Lohan says in an interview at one point, after ambassador Gabi reveals herself as an attention hog. When ambassador Jules attempts to explain her background to Lohan, she ends up getting castigated as a religious zealot:
“I just moved back to Denver a year ago, and now I need to spread my wings and, you know, whatever, explore,” Jules says, introducing herself.
“Are you like, Buddhist a little bit?” Lohan asks.
Jules says no, she is not Buddhist.
“You sound it,” Lohan says, mimicking, “‘Spread my wings and fly’!”
“My family’s actually very, very religious,” Jules says.
“I’m religious in the sense of meditation, I do it three times a day, but this is my own personal religion, and the space that I need to then function myself,” Lohan replies. “I’m going to watch you really closely, because you’re so religious.”
“My family’s very religious, I’m not saying I’m religious,” Jules repeats.
“Oh, the story changes!” Lohan chuckles.
It’s safe to say that Lohan, whose long stint in the public eye was distinctly harsh, does not believably embody the lighthearted party-girl spirit this show pursues. We know too much about her, and she’s too emblematic of something else.
Between the years 2007 and 2014, Lohan’s acting career—which had begun at the age of 3—was shredded in a spray of mug shots, jewelry theft, DUIs, assault allegations, jail time, hideous parental disputes, Dr. Phil appearances, and leggings lawsuits. Humiliations were frequent, and often laced with misogyny. InTouch printed an alleged list of every famous man Lohan had slept with, paparazzi regularly sought “upskirt” shots, and Donald Trump (whose daughter Tiffany is a friend; of Trump’s presidency, Lohan told the Times “I have no feeling. I have no emotion.”) wondered publicly whether Lohan was fuckable, while Brandon Davis and Paris Hilton cackled over Lohan’s “firecrotch.” She was—and remains—nearly always smeared with uneven self-tanner. At one point, Michael Lohan leaked audio of his daughter accusing her mother Dina of using cocaine to TMZ. In 2013, a New York Times feature revealed, among many other unflattering things, that she had sobbed for 90 minutes outside of Paul Schrader’s hotel room in order to convince him to re-hire her to star in The Canyons. In 2014, she starred in the docu-series Lindsay on Oprah’s struggling OWN Network, where she was paid to get berated for her glaring lack of personal responsibility.
Somewhere in between Lohan’s dazzlingly awful performance in Lifetime’s Liz & Dick and that viral Instagram video of her dancing like a glitching 70-year-old on Molly (which will apparently be a scene in Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club), she has developed what a recent Paper cover story dubbed an “enduring cult of celebrity.” But celebrity can very easily edge into surreal notoriety, and Lohan’s certainly has, with a bizarre Instagram defense of Harvey Weinstein, a winking Lawyer.com sponsorship, and a curious allegiance to Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (The latter led to speculation that Lohan was being paid by the Turkish government.)
There’s also the aforementioned accent, which Lohan most recently displayed when she live-streamed a video of herself getting into a physical altercation with a homeless family. It’s not surprising that Lohan and her family have turned, again and again, to reality television as a means of extending their frenetic brand of fame; it’s only notable that they haven’t yet fully succeeded.
Lohan’s announcement that she would be debuting a new Vanderpump Rules-style reality show was met with a feverish surge of internet content. She certainly shares some of the darkly watchable qualities of many reality TV stars, including the president. But it’s also true that the redemption of this supposedly talented wayward actress and self-described addict has been a stubbornly recurrent theme in American pop culture since her first arrest. Perhaps Lohan’s audience retains some sense of culpability for her fate, and would like to be relieved of it.
Reality TV is good when it effectively distracts us from its own narrative. On Vanderpump Rules, for example, we are meant to believe that it is bad for an employee to cause drama in Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurants, for intra-restaurant drama is the root of regular disciplinary action on the show. “I can’t have this in my restaurant,” Lisa will sigh at Jax, or at James, or whoever. In fact, she can and must have this in her restaurant, for no customer with taste buds would purchase her fried goat cheese balls otherwise; it would be a wild delusion to think that Lisa Vanderpump’s businesses and the success of Vanderpump Rules depends on anything other than the entertaining televised misbehavior and latent alcoholism of her aging staff. But viewers don’t worry about the show’s questionable foundation, because we are so effectively catered to in every other way—by personalities both charismatic and awful, by masterfully developed and edited plot-lines, by genuinely funny one-liners, and by Vanderpump herself, whose performance as an animal-hoarding queen of England is remarkably consistent and fun.
Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club gestures at a similar “these heavy drinkers better not mess up... or else” narrative structure, but doesn’t exactly commit itself to maintaining it. In the show’s premiere, Lohan and Spentzos are unconvincingly enraged to find their new guests hanging out in their villa, drinking the alcohol they were undoubtedly provided with by producers. “The ambassadors in the house are in the pool and drunk. I want to build an empire here. This is not girls gone wild,” Lohan says. What is it, though? No one knows. She later cries in an interview. “I don’t want these kids fucking that up for my family and my future.”
Safety, for Lohan, is clearly a theme, both in this show and in life. Safety from her abusive ex, safety from the paparazzi, safety from the New York Times photographer who flew to Mykonos to shoot her for a Styles piece, safety from the perils of post-fame destitution, safety from the reality of her condition, safety from the cast members on her own reality television show. Her physical whereabouts, too, have demonstrated this need. Though she has lately declared a fondness for refugees, Lohan has chosen to embalm herself in pleasure-driven communities walled off from the grief of their neighbors. Mykonos has nothing to do with the economic despair that plagues much of the rest of Greece, or the tortured fate of the refugees trapped in open-air prisons in the Northern Aegean; in a recent W profile, which offered “a reintroduction as the adult [Lohan] has become,” Lohan describes her current hometown of Dubai, where the law permits domestic violence, as “a place you think women don’t have as much of a right to be themselves, but they actually have more than you’d imagine.”
These protections aren’t free, and their cost appears to largely negate them. The star of Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club seems well aware that she’ll never be safe from us.
Lindsay Lohan the individual did not cease to exist when she was effectively sold to the public as a toddler, but she also became—like all celebrities do, to varying degrees; and the rest of us too, now—a representation. A part of Lohan will always mirror us, and we are hard to look at. Susan Sontag disagreed with the cynical view that, in her words, “the vast maw of modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images,” but I can’t think of a better description for Lindsay Lohan, or for the blinding, muddled intensity of life oriented around a screen.
Is it possible for such a person to successfully host a reality show, given how depressing this is to think about? Maybe. No reality show can fully escape what lives at their core; some are just better at hiding it than others. The true achievement of Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club may lie in its flaws, which shove the viewer off our safe perch into that vast maw, where we are compelled, deservedly, to lose orientation.
(This review was based on an early screener provided to Jezebel.)
Ellie Shechet is a writer living in Brooklyn.