Difficult economic times call for difficult choices. When the money gets tight and the husband skips town, some women take a second job, some get public assistance. And some take a job at a massage parlor and make extra tips by performing discreet sexual favors for handsome, muscular hunks, while juggling the demands of single motherhood at home.
Such is the case of Jennifer Love Hewitt (late of “The Ghost Whisperer”) In Lifetime’s “The Client List,” a series based on the TV movie of the same name from 2010. Hewitt plays Riley Parks, a mother with two kids whose painkiller-addict husband leaves her. Facing debts she can’t pay, she falls back on her training as a massage therapist and gets a job in a spa, only to find that the best money is made by offering “happy endings” to well-heeled clients. She also finds she has a talent for helping these clients with their personal relationship problems. Call her “the penis whisperer.”
To say that the show is unrealistic is to miss the point. Of course it’s unrealistic. The world of Lifetime and “Client List” is no less a fantasy world than “Vampire Diaries” or “Game of Thrones.” Like so many other channels (G4 or Spike or USA for example), Lifetime’s bread and butter is a world of demographic-stroking escapes from reality. Dragons and necromancers, or sensual crime-fighting pinups, or happily-ever-after romance, they’re just different versions of alternate worlds.
In Lifetime’s case, the masters of the realm aren’t UFC experts or covert ops or Peter Dinklage. The ruling class consists of strong, beautiful women with great hair holding their own against whatever worthless man is lurking in the shrubbery, while romancing hunky underwear models and raising camera-friendly children in homes and apartments straight out of the Pottery Barn catalogue. With candles, lots of candles.
In the particular alternate reality of “Client List”, the men who pay for handies at massage parlors are always handsome and free of both STDs and back hair, the heroine gets out of bed already fully made up with eyelashes you could use for ceiling fans, and the problems of parenting can be solved with just a stern admonishment and a s’more. No mention, however, of the mystery of what happened to the missing top three buttons of every blouse Riley wears.
She looks admirably tarty in her underwear, but great acting range is not a burden Jennifer Love Hewitt carries. As Riley, she is presented with the 42DD challenge of playing an implausible role absurdly straight, alternating in one-note fashion between soft-focus seductress of the needy, proud but vulnerable lonely heart, and wistful but protective mama bear. With the exception of “Grey’s Anatomy” vet Loretta Devine as Georgia, the savvy but genial pimp...er, spa owner, the supporting cast kind of drifts in and out of scenes, registering like dull headaches. As Riley’s serial-marrying mom, Cybil Shepherd’s considerable cache of TV goodwill is wasted in a role with any potential charm exfoliated and mud-wrapped.
What’s really wrong here is not that it’s an unrealistic fantasy, but that it’s not unrealistic or fantastical enough. Played as a walk-on-the-wild-side steamy treat, or as a low-brow satire of small-town sexual hijinks and eccentricity, it has potential. But presented as marginal, basic-cable realism, “The Client List” is without even a single all-natural fiber of credibility or sheet-raising sensuality. Plot threads are generated and resolved with alarming simplicity or simple-mindedness, and characterization is as thin as a layer of massage oil.
The creators, including Hewitt as co-executive producer, have hedged their bets on all counts in search of some manner of dubious ‘good-taste.’ In this first season, it’s pretty clear they’re going to have to up the ante to make this mess something more than the TV equivalent of a pulled groin muscle or a viewer drinking game waiting to happen. In the fantasy realm of Lifetime, that seems unlikely to happen.
“The Client List – Season One” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. To judge by the three-disc set on a single spindle in the slip case, even the makers see it as disposable. There are subtitle tracks in English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The picture quality is that of standard high-def TV, meaning the cleavage and shirtless beefcake is rendered in satisfying but unremarkable detail.
The audio track is English 5.1 Dolby Digital, with an option for Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Again, TV standard issue, nothing especially noteworthy or troublesome.
On Disc One: a set of negligible deleted scenes
On Disc Two: outtakes that are mildly amusing, and deleted scenes
On Disc Three: more forgettable deleted scenes, and trailers for films that Lifetime viewers might find interesting.
Too coyly middle-brow and discreet to be soft-core porn, too straight-faced to be satire, not over-the-top enough to be a guilty pleasure, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s massage parlor drama “The Client List” will rub almost everyone the wrong way.