In her nearly three decades at J.Crew, creative director Jenna Lyons elevated timeless wardrobe pieces at accessible price points for millions of devoted fans. (Remember Michelle, Sasha, and Malia Obama's looks at Barack Obama's first inauguration? Lyons styled them.) But three years ago — in a move industry watchers called "the end of an era" — J.Crew president Mickey Drexler (apparently) pinned the company's sagging sales on Lyons and (apparently) fired her. After taking some time to lick her wounds, Lyons is now back in an HBO Max hybrid documentary/formatted competition series about the post-J.Crew phase of her career.
We rejoin Lyons early in 2020, as she's re-entering the public eye as a prelude for launching a new company that will encompass her interests in the worlds of "fashion, home, and beauty." When she's not doing things like calling over a social media consultant to help her take the photo (of her feet, and dog) that will be her first-ever post on Instagram or traveling from New York to Los Angeles to set up a photo booth at the SAG Awards, she's interviewing the young designers, stylists, editors, and artists who will vie for a chance to join Lyons's new company.
In order to screen them over the first few episodes, Lyons sets a mini-challenge in which all the aspirants participate, then chooses two winners to go on to the episode's main challenge. Sometimes said challenge makes logical sense: if she's throwing a dinner party, then yes, the prospective associates should design tablescapes; it's less clear to me how excelling at styling a blazer, shirt, and pants qualifies anyone to design the front entryway of Lyons's friend's brownstone. The elimination process is more fluid than a typical competition show; overall, it will probably remind you more of shows like What Not to Wear, Get Organized with The Home Edit, and Get a Room with Carson And Thom — there's an assignment, there's shopping, there's struggle, and and then there's a happy, hug-filled reveal.
Adding to the mix in each episode are a series of tips designed to, as the series title promises, push the viewer to be more stylish. Admittedly, they're... kind of the same tips that get trotted out in every show that attempts to get basics to dress a little less basic: mix up proportions, don't be afraid to clash patterns in the same color family, add sparkle (but not too much), and so on. Lyons also offers home design tips, but seems less confident in that arena; as for the "beauty" leg of her brand stool, all we get are a lot of plugs for her line of false eyelashes.
But if the show was conceived and pitched as a servicey how-to, what has resulted is an "elevated documentary" on a breathtakingly entitled rich white woman. I have no doubt that it was traumatic for Lyons to (apparently) get fired from the job that had defined her entire adulthood. But after getting fired, most people don't have the luxury of taking two years off to regroup — and, if they do, the expectation would be for their professional relaunch to be a lot more clearly defined than Lyons's is. Say what you will about Goop, but at least Gwyneth Paltrow (who shows up in the second episode of Stylish) had the sense not to make a TV show out of it until it was fairly well established.
Not only hasn't Lyons settled on exactly what her business is going to be when HBO Max's cameras show up, even as the show premieres, it seems like she still hasn't. It took my finding this Vogue piece, tied to the show's launch, to find out what the new company is even called, because it's never mentioned on Stylish: it's Lyons L.A.D., for "Life After Death" (and I would really love to know who thought that was a cute name in the midst of a pandemic); as of this writing, its website does nothing but take your info.
We do eventually learn that some of Lyons's plans were scuttled by the quarantine: the pop-up shop we see her preparing to open on the ground floor of her building ends up online instead, for example. Nevertheless, the fact that Lyons even gets in the door of a retail sector guru with a barely formed presentation based on a photo shoot from one dinner party teaches us nothing so much as how far a famous person can coast on the fumes of their last successful idea — or, rather, the last idea that was successful until they got (apparently) fired.
Oh, but Lyons is an "icon," someone that fashion nerds across the country and around the world have looked up to for years, a giant in the field, et cetera, et cetera: just ask the prospective associates! Because every episode includes several talking head interviews with them enthusing about how great Lyons is and what it would mean to them to get the job. I don't doubt they sincerely feel that way; I just think that once we're past the first few episodes of their introductions, we can assume they haven't soured on her, because continuing to include this fluffing footage — particularly when we're also getting it from Kyle DeFord, Lyons's Chief of Staff (and Lyons herself is getting it from him, directly to her face) — it gets a bit excessive. The more you say it, the less convincing it becomes...
...especially when what we actually see of Lyons in action doesn't make her seem so great. Take, for instance, the sixth episode, "Open House and Broken Hearts." Lyons is preparing to sell a house upstate that she owned with her ex-girlfriend, and we flash back five months to the day that the camera crew joined Lyons, DeFord, and their friend (and later colleague) Sarah Clary on a trip there to assess the damage from a burst pipe. At one point, the camera catches the back of a woman most of her way out the door whom a chyron identifies as Lyons's "camera-shy ex-girlfriend." ...Why? To show she was present? Is it essential that we know they were there on the same day? To brag on the fact that Lyons's crew was so respectful of the ex's desire not to appear in Lyons's show that they call out the fact that her face isn't on camera? Why not respect her even more by just cutting any shots of her out of the edit?
This is how Lyons treats people she considers her peers; she's a lot more casual with the feelings of the prospective associates. Because there is no fixed structure for when and how they are dismissed, they are never emotionally prepared when it happens, or doesn't. There's also a lot of snarky undermining of the associates that takes place in the chyrons, which sometimes act as Lyons's interior monologue; when Lyons's preamble to a critique starts with negatives and then ends in her telling the associate she will be staying on, Lyons says, "I wasn't trying to play you," and the chyron reads, "OK MAYBE JUST A LITTLE." Yuck! (Speaking of which: considering part of the Lyons myth we're sold is about her impeccable attention to detail — one anecdote about the acceptable peonies chart that she gave a J.Crew assistant may haunt you as it has me — perhaps someone should have proofread the chyrons to make sure words like "Moroccan" and "Diesel" were spelled correctly.)
But Lyons's absolute worst sin, as portrayed in the show, is epitomized in a single line: "I'm not just creating a business. I'm creating a family." If the past, oh, eight months have taught us one thing we didn't already know, it's that your job is explicitly not your family. Just because Lyons has apparently co-opted DeFord and Clary from best friends to employees doesn't mean it's acceptable for her to do that with all the much younger and less established strangers who have come into her life through the Stylish process, but Lyons blurs lines all over the place. Though we see her set up an office in the space directly under her apartment, when the time comes to dismiss prospective associates, she has them come upstairs to give them the bad news in her home. It also feels like a gauche imposition that one of the associates' tasks is to come up to the aforementioned country house to stage it for real estate brokers. Sure, it's more in line with the associates' career goals than just having them walk her little purse dog, but just because Lyons has cool indie cred from her acting arc on Girls doesn't mean she isn't verging into The Devil Wears Prada territory with this stuff.
In case the above didn't make it clear: I devoured this show in short order, vibrating with a fury I welcomed. The past while has left me feeling mostly rage about a million things going on in the world that I can't control or really even affect at all; in comparison, experiencing rage about something utterly meaningless was a balm. If, like me, you think you'd enjoy getting mad at an oblivious rich broad who never feels any consequences for how out-of-touch she is, and you can't wait for another season of The Goop Lab, Stylish with Jenna Lyons will fill the gap nicely.
Stylish with Jenna Lyons drops on HBO Max December 3rd.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.