There’s a great moment midway through the first (and currently the only) season of The Comeback, HBO’s 2005 cult comedy starring Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a washed-up sitcom star given a second lease on fame with a supporting role in a broad TV comedy (the perfectly titled Room And Bored), as well as her own tie-in reality show. During a lunch meeting with a TV Guide reporter, Cherish insists that the show isn’t going to be tawdry; she wants to tell her story “with dignity.” The Comeback itself is about the tension between the story Cherish wants to tell and the one she’s actually telling. Hidden behind an ersatz grin, Cherish wants to put on a brave face and be the hero of her own story. Sitting down to watch the Room And Bored pilot, she realizes the reality of television is more complicated.
Vain, deluded, and desperate for attention, Valerie Cherish was a forerunner of our modern reality television era, dominated by women who will do what it takes to remain in the spotlight. Though women are underrepresented in scripted television (accounting for just 43 percent of primetime speaking roles), their stories dominate reality TV. But what stories are actually getting told here? As Newsweek’s Jessica Bennett puts it, the surfeit of representation comes with a cost, as reality television portrays women as “money-grubbing, plastic-surgery-plumped fame whores—a cadre of schemers who seemingly can’t resist a good catfight.” You don’t see many Real Housewives-style shows for men, but for women, they’re just about the only game in town.
Coincidentally enough, HBO is discussing a revival of The Comeback just as OWN is nearing the conclusion of its eight-episode run of Lindsay, a docu-series that, like the show Cherish has in her head, aspires to give viewers something different. Lindsay promises viewers an inside look at the struggles and triumphs of Lindsay Lohan’s career, as she embarks on what she knows to be her last attempt at fame. Lohan shares much in common with Valerie Cherish; they’re both former A-listers who became victims of success. Cherish’s show made her the “It Girl,” but the problem with that designation is that it fades. An actor can’t stay “fresh” forever, and Cherish relishes the time when she was still “It.” It’s telling that Lindsay Lohan still owns a “Fetch” T-shirt from Mean Girls, an artifact of a time when she was still the Queen Bee. It’s even more telling that, now a decade later, her mother admits she has no idea what “fetch” means.
In giving Lohan her comeback story, the Oprah tie-in lends the enterprise an air of legitimacy. Winfrey has made her name on an ethos of empowerment, with a talk show that marketed to its viewers a brand of middle-class actualization. Like the self-help book The Secret, which Oprah helped make into a cultural phenomenon, Winfrey’s message is about the power of positive thinking and the transformation of the self. That brand is stamped all over Lindsay, as Winfrey attempts to will Lindsay Lohan into wellness. In the series’ third episode, Lohan fails to make the commitments of the show, canceling shoots with producers and sleeping well into the afternoon. Oprah schedules an intervention, telling her to “cut the bullshit” and reminding her that a reality show comes with expectations. She has to play the game.
Although Lohan reminds Winfrey that she wants this, she doesn’t seem to grasp the very concept that Winfrey is explaining. “I signed up for something to just [have] a camera just be there, not a reality show,” Lohan tells the camera crew. “No offense to the Kardashians. They do a great job with theirs, but I don’t ever want to be that.” Lohan states that her number-one mission is sobriety, and it’s clear that she expected the documentary to act as her AA sponsor: It’s harder to take a drink if all of America is watching you. But therein lies the tension of Lindsay. The show seemingly exists to hold her accountable for her actions, but it also revels in them, putting bad behavior at the center of Lindsay’s marketing campaign. As comedian J. Anthony Brown reminds us, “Mess sells.”
Media critic Jennifer Pozner argues reality TV often “exploits minorities, women and children” because they’re the most vulnerable, as women like Lindsay Lohan or Valerie Cherish might not otherwise have opportunities for success. And what’s clear from Lindsay is just how incredibly vulnerable Lohan is. Signing up for the show, Lohan had absolutely nothing left to lose. The actress is all but unhireable after a New York Times profile detailed the cost of working with her, and her latest projects have included the critically reviled Scary Movie 5 and inAPPropriate Comedy—the latter of which should be on the short list of Worst Movies Ever Made. At this point, Lohan will take almost any gig she can get, which makes her perfect fodder for a reality show. Trapped in her hotel room by the swarm of paparazzi that follow her every move, Lohan describes herself as a “prisoner.” She doesn’t know how right she is.
But it’s unlikely that a reality show will be her ticket to freedom. Throughout Lindsay, Lohan has almost no power over her own life, forever controlled by someone’s lens, whether it’s the tabloid media or her own show. When she’s on camera, Lindsay Lohan is under contract, which the producers remind her of by threatening to revoke her payment when she doesn’t do what she’s told. Oprah might say that she only wants what’s best for her, but she’s just another camera, ready to profit off of watching a woman humiliate herself. At the end of The Comeback, Valerie Cherish is forced to make a choice between respecting herself and being in the spotlight. Her show is a hit, but it also makes her look like the villain and continuing with it would sacrifice her integrity. Cherish decides dignity isn’t as important as she thought.
With Lindsay Lohan, it’s not just about dignity, putting on a brave face for the public. This is her life. Oprah reminds Lohan that she wants to help the actress speak her truth and reach people, but that only lasts for eight episodes, until the contract is up. What happens when the cameras turn off? Oprah might get the tape she wants, but it’s Lindsay Lohan who has to live with the reality.