The new MTV reality series “Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club” is an accidental success — not its star’s first, but perhaps her most interestingly far in impact from what seemed to be its mission. As an in-good-faith (well, seemingly good enough) attempt to craft a compelling reality franchise about the secret lives of service industry employees working for Lindsay Lohan at her Mykonos nightclub, it falls flat. But as a psychological portrait of the paparazzi magnet-turned-aspiring hospitality magnate Lohan, it’s juicily riveting, all the more so because Lohan so assiduously strives to reveal little of herself. The more Lohan attempts to stay above the drama that the show is built around, the more she reveals a sort of star power turned toxic, a gift at keeping us watching even as we wince.
The series cribs heavily from the playbook of Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules,” a series whose title star, the restaurant owner Lisa Vanderpump, revels in the fact that she doesn’t have to drive the story. Her staff of angsty beautiful people do that work for her. Here, whether through less apt casting or because the savvy reality producers at Bunim/Murray wanted to ensure she remains at close to the center of her story as she can be convinced to get, the team of well-toned service employees don’t pop as characters. One young woman describes herself by the title “model marketing server,” a spin on “cocktail waitress” worthy of the age of the influencer but one whose stodgy self-seriousness gives the game away. The people Lohan hired—in a comically overblown scene in which she read through a bound portfolio of resumes—are there because of their grim focus on being famous.
Lohan, by contrast, has been there, done it, and found it wanting; we’re told in her opening monologue that she abandoned Hollywood for leveraging her notoriety with a club in the Greek Isles as an attempt to “be my own boss.” Not in the steel-eyed early stages of the quest for fame, she’s liberated to be herself, with all that that implies. At 32, Lohan has the breezy, rude confidence of a camp icon decades older. She is convinced that everyone is hanging on her every word (which is true) and that she can never be wrong (which is false). To wit: “I’m religious in the sense of meditation,” she tells one of her newly-hired staffers during an impromptu meet-and-greet, after asking if they’re observant and not listening to her answer (which is that her family is). “I do that three times a day. This is my own personal religion and the space that I need to then function myself. I’m going to watch you really closely because you’re so religious.“ Informed that the person to whom she’s speaking isn’t religious and never claimed to be, Lohan smirks. “Oh! The story changes.”
Lohan’s re-emergence on reality TV comes as no surprise. Her level of present-day fame—notoriety based on past accomplishments but more recently nourished by tabloid drama—makes her an obvious choice for a genre that’s long been a safe landing space for falling stars. (Her mother once floated her as a potential “Celebrity Apprentice” competitor.) Her recent travails, widely covered in the media, haunt the show in the presence of her business partner (a fedora-wearing fellow who says Lohan is “like part of my family right now”) and a certain lilt to Lohan’s voice, reminding the viewer that until recently, she had adopted a sort of pan-Arab accent. But it’s her guileless inability to hide her inner life that makes her a reality star. After all, OWN’s 2014 docuseries “Lindsay”—about Lohan’s stutter-stepping attempts at recovery and a career reboot—was a riveting, painful watch, one that would have been kinder left unbroadcast but that was unmissable when it aired.
Similarly, now, Lohan is both ruthlessly aware of how she comes across and congenitally unaware of how to save herself. Much like Valerie Cherish, the fictional lapsed actress trying out reality TV played by Lisa Kudrow on the satire “The Comeback,” Lohan can’t get out of her own way; her idea that her reality show will convey a positive image of her rubs up against the fact that after years in Hollywood, she’s forgotten how to speak with even the basics of relatability. In an attempt to look like a good boss and a detail-oriented nightclub manager, she picks a random, luxe-looking blanket off a lounge chair. “We’re not poor, we don’t really need this,” is what she decides to say. Deriding an employee whom she first meets when the unfortunate staffer is swimming in her lingerie, Lohan can’t help but bulldoze the fourth wall the show’s spent time and care setting up, declaring, “I think you want your own show. You should focus on that.” The coup de grace? Lohan tells the audience that the sartorial misstep was “like me going to meet Steven Spielberg in a bra with wet hair and wet bikini shorts.”
That Lohan is in no danger of wearing the wrong thing to a meeting with Steven Spielberg makes the moment sadder, and makes it soar as a sort of profile in micro-miniature. Lohan, who at the height of her fame was mordantly self-aware and made jokes about herself (on “Saturday Night Live” but in random press interviews, too) before anyone else could, is in the twilight of her repute not just ruthlessly protective of her status but unaware that said status has diminished. Every aspect of her public posture has shifted: Lohan’s cigarette-inflected Long Island honk has given way to her new, unusual intonation. Her mid-2000s starlet couture has given way to oddly stuffy garb that looks like Aaron Spelling’s idea of what a female CEO would wear. And a star who’d dish and dissemble endlessly about her turbulent life has grown chary and secretive; in one haunting moment, we’re told about a traumatic incident Lohan suffered on the beach years before—presumably the assault Lohan suffered at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Egor Tarabasov, in 2016. “Instead of crying or getting angry,” Lohan says, pushing past the story before it can be explained, “I said, I’m going to own this beach one day because I always want everyone to feel safe.”
And that’s all we get; it’s back to the spats and the appetites of a group of servers far less magnetic than their boss. Perhaps, indeed, that’s why she’s the boss. But one can’t help but feeling like “Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club” doesn’t know how to best deploy exactly what it has: An airy optimist who suddenly develops a Machiavellian self-interest when her spotlight is threatened, a central presence for whom putting people before cameras is tantamount to keeping them safe even after years of evidence that, for her, the opposite is true. When Lohan is offscreen, her “Beach Club” is an exercise in reality-TV boredom. When she returns, it’s a reminder that her late-2000s reign over tabloid culture wasn’t just a fluke. It was the culture trying to metabolize an individual whose truest and most enduring gift is her ability to endure any humiliation and just keep going, ready for what the next day, and the next blog-post news cycle, will bring. The meeting with Spielberg is less likely after “Beach Club” than ever before. But if we can stipulate that being allowed to play the savvy expert in a product bearing her name is as much a reward for this child of the media age as would be a cameo in a follow-up to “The Post” (that it means, indeed, vastly more)—well, I’m newly unready to count Lohan out.
“Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club.” MTV, Jan. 8.
Executive Producers: Gil Goldschein, Julie Pizzi, Farnaz Farjam, Andrea Metz, Lily Neumeyer, Jessica Zalkind and Ben Hurvitz.