I first became aware of the new Lifetime drama The Client List (currently three episodes into its first season) due to this hilarious review by Troy Patterson, the droll TV critic for Slate.
Patterson’s light touch perfectly matches the ridiculous but harmless subject matter. The review also gave me hope that the show might at worst be something that’s fun to watch in a mocking, ironic way or at best maybe even the sort of mildly diverting light drama that’s nice to have on in the background while doing something else, like some of USA and TNT’s better offerings.
After having watched most of the first two episodes, I’m sorry to report that the show has little to offer anyone outside of the key demo Lifetime seems to be aiming for: woman interested in seeing a little mild beefcake along with some “you go girl” empowerment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I cannot possibly improve on Patterson’s hilarious description of the premise so to quote in full:
In one promotional clip for The Client List, Hewitt says that her character, effectively a single mother, is forestalling foreclosure on her home by performing an “odd job.” If you replace the word odd with the word hand in that quote, then you will begin to understand the premise of the series.
The show is part of a gradual makeover that Lifetime is attempting as it tries to shift to slightly more edgy content and away from the constant reliance on woman as victim scenarios. Some of Lifetime’s promos signalling this shift use, I kid you not, the slogan “This is not your mother’s Lifetime.” Where’s Don Draper refusing to hire that kid for ripping off the “Cure for the Common [blank]” cliché when you need him?
So, much like Bryan Cranston’s character in Breaking Bad, Mary Louise Parker’s in Weeds, and Thomas Jane’s in Hung, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character, Riley Parks, turns to criminality (though in her case obviously it’s criminality of the absolute mildest sort) for ostensibly noble purposes.
Though The Client List takes this by now faux-edgy conceit from more daring cable fare, any similarity between it and these aforementioned shows ends there. Unlike the morally ambiguous protagonists of edgier cable, Riley is presented as completely sympathetic in every way.
When her mother (played by Cybill Shepherd!) points out to Riley that she could simply move in with her as opposed to staying in the huge, beautiful house that’s being foreclosed on, Riley replies that the children have already lost their father and she can’t take their house away too. So, in true American fashion, pure sentimentality is seen as a perfectly valid reason to stay deeply in debt. The way the line is delivered and the scene is shot it’s clear that the Lifetime audience is meant to see Riley’s stance as heroic and not delusional.
Riley’s entry into the world of “full release”/”happy ending” massage is presented in such a glossy, appealing way it’s a wonder why any woman wouldn’t want to take up this line of work. Ludicrously it happens at the same completely respectable, high-end spa where she’s already working doing legitimate, legal message therapy. (Licensed massage therapists, who have spent decades combating the stereotype that they’re all actually sex workers, cannot be too happy with this show.)
After a client seems to indicate to her that he expects “an extra,” Riley learns that there’s a list of clients (a “Client List” if you will) who expect such treatment and are willing to tip big to get it. It’s telling just how euphemistic the language is that the show employs to describe what exactly it is that Riley is doing. “Extras” is as specific as it ever gets. Even euphemisms like “release” or “happy ending” are never used, let alone their crasser cousins such as “rub and tug” or, you know, “hand job.”
Riley’s inevitable descent (if it could even be called a descent) into the world of pro hand jobbery does provide the pilot episode with its one laugh out loud hilarious, unintentionally funny scene. In the scenes where she’s practicing legitimate massage therapy, the clients have a relatively realistic array of body types, attractiveness levels etc. There are even some lame attempts at humor involving a guy who’s too hairy and other mishaps. But when she switches to “The Client List” every single guy on it is young and has the chiseled, sculpted physique of an underwear model and a handsome face. This all culminates in an incredible montage (set to the xx, the cliché sexytime music of choice for 2012) in which Riley takes sheets off, sculpted torso after sculpted torso.
Obviously, the point of all this isn’t groundbreaking TV drama but to serve both the typical Lifetime viewer and her husband or boyfriend with some mild titillation. She has the guys but for him JLH, with her magnificent cleavage, is wearing sexy lingerie which the clients have purchased for her. Jennifer Love Hewitt is pitch-perfect casting as the lead. Here again, Patterson is right on the money with his phrase “family-friendly sex kitten.” Over time Hewitt has somehow become the perfect, non-threatening TV sex symbol that both women and men can agree on. Here, her bland prettiness and mild spunkiness perfectly matches the lightweight, glossy show built around her.