Sunday, April 08, 2012

'The Client List'

The way that Lifetime has been promoting The Client List, with sexy trailers featuring a half-naked Jennifer Love Hewitt surrounded by scantily clad beefcake, suggests a show a lot more salacious and campy and fun than what the creators have actually come up with. Based on the 2010 Lifetime TV movie of the same name (which I haven't seen), List follows suburban Texas housewife Riley Parks (Hewitt) as she enters the illicit world of happy-endings massages in the name of providing for her two kids after her husband unexpectedly takes off.

Yes, this is a show about Jennifer Love Hewitt giving dudes handjobs, and yet it's maddeningly prudish about the whole thing. The original TV movie involved Hewitt's character (who had a different name) becoming a full-on prostitute and drug addict before getting arrested, and while I understand that the main character of an ongoing series probably can't go all the way down that route, toning her activities down to a few rub-and-tugs (it's made clear that the women at the massage parlor engage overwhelmingly in legitimate business) feels like a cheat. Plus, while the pilot provides plenty of moments featuring Hewitt in sexy, barely there outfits (and the second episode offers up a few more), what Riley does best for her clients is listen to their problems, giving them a more satisfying emotional release along with the manual release they're paying for.

There's so much camp potential here that seeing it squandered is just sad. Beyond Hewitt, who's still very sexy, the cast includes Cybill Shepherd (as Riley's very Southern mama), Loretta Devine (as the owner of the massage parlor) and Desi Lydic (who stole every scene she was in as the clueless guidance counselor on MTV's Awkward), plus veterans of the Melrose Place remake, The O.C. and The Playboy Club, all shows with varying levels of camp appeal. And yet creator Jordan Budde plays things disappointingly straight, focusing more on Riley's domestic drama (her missing husband, her needy kids, her financial problems) than on the inner workings of the massage parlor or how exactly Riley deals with her clients' needs.

Budde has worked on the original Melrose Place, both versions of 90210 and ABC's GCB, so he should know his campy melodrama, and List has the potential to be the sexy sleaze-fest that GCB promised but never delivered. There's no reason why Lifetime couldn't follow AMC and FX into the realm of adult-oriented drama (the model for List could be something like HBO's Hung, which in its best moments had a sense of playfulness about sex work while retaining a dark, morally ambiguous edge), or at least follow USA into the realm of goofy, sexy escapism. But the network seems to want to build its sex appeal while retaining its core audience of timid housewives, and so List is just a bland domestic drama instead of something more rewarding.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.

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