Lindsay Lohan deserves a reward — well, maybe not a reward per se, but some kind of badge or framed acknowledgment of the fact that she is like a human Jenga tower. She’s an ambitious stack — she falls down and knocks over ashtrays and gets too drunk to keep from toppling over — but then again, she’s reached some impressive heights in her career. She was way the hell up there, and then she was a bunch of bones on the ground. We’re probably interested in her because she’s so wobbly, but she won’t stay down.
Especially so soon after Lana Del Rey crooned like a lost and lonely manatee and brought the scorn of gazillions upon herself, appearing on SNL as an attempt at career redemption was a ballsy move for Lohan. Live television is already such a bear-trapped obstacle course for the erratic, but live comedy involving cue cards — and peppered with jokes revolving around one’s own celebrity, sexuality, and drug abuse — is a lot more challenging than, say, showing The Insider your millions of pumps. Hitfix’s Ryan McGee has already pointed out that Lohan had little do to in her opening monologue, which took care of most of the rehab and boy-isn’t-she-nutty material; she seemed to emulsify into the background of most of the sketches, maybe as insurance in case she suffered from exhaustion during rehearsals, or maybe just to cushion her from the pressure of what was already beating down on her from the eyes of the tabloid readers, the Saturday-night stay-at-homes, and the critical bloggers. There is a large Venn diagram overlap there, obviously, and it’s spacious and air-conditioned in here. It was safer, and perhaps benevolent, to go easy on her, but unfortunately it placed a low ceiling on what she was able to accomplish. I mean, Victoria Gotti was recently fired from The Celebrity Apprentice, and those stars just keep misaligning! What’s the use of Saturday Night Live if it can’t offer snack-sized, half-baked versions of my real entertainment dreams? The Real Housewives of Disney was a pretty great idea and a good use of Lohan, though you’re left wondering if she could have carried off more work, or if the load was calibrated to her capabilities.
The “Scared Straight” sketch was where Lindsay stumbled a bit, reading the cue cards with an accidental duckface and delivering tiny marshmallow punches to Bill Hader’s arm. Though Jon Hamm was on hand during the monologue to step in for Lohan in case she flaked (ha-ha, just in case!), a stealthier celebrity stole this sketch from the actors in the form of a cup of pencils on a desk. The pencils had been chilling out, blending into the scenery or just out of frame, for over five minutes before they summoned Jason Sudeikis’s rear to come crashing down on them from an impressive distance — a real gravity-defying hop, innocent and blind — making everybody die of Jimmy Fallon sketchgiggles as the cup’s graphite-bearing payload exploded to the floor. The cup of pencils — sometimes personified as Ashlee Simpson, sometimes taking the form of rotting pumpkins left onstage after a poorly received performance of “Beef Bologna” — is why we like live TV: It’s unpredictable, current, and sometimes makes a loud noise by accident that’s totally disruptive to the already hastily thrown-together diegesis. Its nature is to expose flaws and allow for unexpected moments of brilliance, and to tattoo your mind with the image of James Carville’s face turning into a penis. It tends to suffer when it’s safe.
Part of me is glad, though, that Lindsay wasn’t the cup of pencils this time, and that the cup of pencils had its own moment in the spotlight and that it can now join SAG-AFTRA. It’s only the fact that a career-redeeming comeback requires a certain amount of dazzle that makes Lindsay’s guest spot slightly underwhelming. It almost seems as though we’ve underestimated her, that her appearance was premature in terms of what she might have been able to accomplish if she’d gained a little more trust first. Her willingness to try to gain it is fascinating, considering how frequently we’ve dumped on her, and it speaks to something admirably tenacious at her core. Maybe that’s why her presentation on SNL was so pale: We want to see her stack some blocks, but we keep reaching out our hands to keep the damn thing from falling down and making us feel sad.