Even Oprah Winfrey’s much-vaunted powers have their limits.
Winfrey has, on the whole, had mixed results when it comes to programming on the Oprah Winfrey Network. But “Lindsay,” a “docu-series” that ended last night, was an unmitigated disaster. Despite having access to the spectacle of Lindsay Lohan’s recovery, the show failed to entice viewers. And as a figure who promises quasi-mystical solutions to all of life’s problems, Winfrey herself fell short. “Lindsay,” in the end, was a case study in the limits of Oprahism.
“Lindsay” seems to have been intended to be two things at once: An opportunity to reel in ratings by piggybacking on the travails of a tabloid fixture, and an opportunity to prove Winfrey’s omnipotence. If she could heal whatever it was that had historically kept Lohan from behaving professionally on film sets and staying out of legal trouble, she really could do anything. The prospect that this could be a linchpin for her network’s Sunday night lineup was certainly not lost on anyone.
The series that resulted was a strange clash of dueling brands: Lohan acting with obnoxious disregard for everyone around her, and Winfrey pushing her familiar therapeutic babble. The two women’s differences compounded one another’s: Lohan’s trademark is spinning out elaborate and specific justifications for her behavior, while Winfrey’s is to speak in creamy generalities. After Lohan made production almost impossible with delays, Winfrey met with her, and made a series of vague overtures focused either on Winfrey herself or on her brand of analysis. “I believe that you believe that this is your time to turn this around for yourself. I believe that.” Winfrey addressed Lohan’s “heart intelligence” and the degree to which she “blocks” the “phenomenal things” that could come her way in life.
Lohan, though, is a complicated person with complicated problems. She cannot be magically healed by a brief check-in and a dose of Oprah wisdom; her personal crises (to name a few, a difficult family, assorted substances, and the lingering burdens of child stardom) are tangled-up and very real. Her erratic behavior continued on the show; an episode dealing with just how difficult it was to book her for a magazine photoshoot seems to be the strongest argument as to why directors shouldn’t hire her. And then, in the final episode, Lohan divulged a recent miscarriage as the reason for her refusal to film scenes for the show. It’s a deeply sad moment -- and a troubling one. Is the lens of a camera, one that’s transmitting scenes to an unfeeling audience, the best place to be describing such a fresh personal tragedy?
Predictably, the trauma was quickly digested by tabloid websites. Lohan may no longer be able to command an audience on TV, but she still makes for an easy headline -- one that, as covered incisively by The Wrap, treated Lohan as though she had personally done something wrong. That the sad culmination of this strange series involved viewers gawking at Lohan as she admitted a medical trauma suggested that no one had really thought through what it meant to build a series around a figure who’s been the object of prurient attention for a decade.
Whether or not Lohan “really wants” to kick self-destructive habits is a matter between her and her family. The fact that Winfrey has invited speculation, and positioned Lohan’s recovery as a game for the TV hostess to win armed with some tough talk, is the worst sort of phoniness. “Lindsay” ends with a revelation consciously framed as a Shocking TV Moment – and there’s something particularly callous about seeing a miscarriage treated as just another of Lohan’s tabloid-ready bombshells.
Why should we expect differently? The Queen of Talk has always benefited from the seedier side of human nature. Winfrey, in one memorable episode, had her cameras follow a binge-drinking mother; unsurprisingly, documenting recovery on camera was not a recipe for long-lasting results. The subject of the “Alcoholic Mom” episode relapsed, and spoke publicly about the stigma she’d received due to Winfrey’s show. Winfrey has a knack for reducing all of human experience to the sound bite of a personal challenge that one can choose to overcome, or not. It seems unfathomable to the Oprah Winfrey Network that problems could be deeply-seeded enough, or traumas upsetting enough, to be incurable within an hour of airtime.