The Client List debuts tonight on Lifetime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
When Lifetime announced it was ordering a 10-episode television series based on its popular original movie The Client List, my first question was: How? (Well, technically my first question was “Why?” but that seemed like a harsh way to kick things off here.) The world of the movie was a very self-contained thing: She came; she serviced; she worked with the feds to bring down the entire operation. How was there possibly any story left to tell?
The show’s solution to this dilemma is to completely start over. Aside from the title, the basic premise, and two of the lead actors, everything about the series version of The Client List is a clean slate. Jennifer Love Hewitt—nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in the movie—returns, this time playing Riley Parks, a happily married but out-of-work masseuse who finally gets a job, only to find out everything at her spa (named The Rub, of course) isn’t exactly what it seems. Things get even more complicated when her formerly perfect husband packs up one day and leaves her and their children with nary an explanation offered. It’s a jarring moment, not only because it happens so unexpectedly but also because of how quickly and drastically it changes the entire tone of the show. With her husband gone and the bills piling up, the once-straight Riley decides paying her mortgage is more important than any moral hang-ups and decides giving “the extras” at work is worth it for the extra tips.
Here’s where things get a little wonky. The Client List desperately wants to be both a serious personal drama and a lighthearted workplace comedy at the same time, but the execution of this juxtaposition is confused at best. Much of this has to do with the moral issue of what Riley is doing, or more accurately, the show’s treatment of this moral issue. The series already undercut the movie’s much more interesting moral predicament by having the husband leave before any happy endings began. But it’s not satisfied to simply do that; no, it wants to make it sexy. Every normal customer is coded as inconsiderate, gross, and rude. The men paying for full service, however, are painted as Riley’s saviors: kind, generous, and preternaturally attractive. The series' intentions are almost admirable in their shamelessness; the show is determined to get the viewers on board with the premise by any means necessary.
This is exemplified by Riley’s first encounter with a paying customer. The whole scene is set up as some kind of first date scenario. The man is sensitive and hot, soft seductive music is playing in the background, and he even says things like “It’s been a long time since someone’s touched me like that.” The customer is seducing Riley, selling her on this new part of her job, but at the same time, the show is selling the premise to viewers, seducing us to forget the transactional nature of the encounter and focus on the romance. It’s a strange choice, but one that’s easy to see a network like Lifetime deeming necessary for the long-term sustainability of the show. There's no room to think it's gross if you make it romantic, right?
Still, the show has one giant thing going for it, and that’s Hewitt. Despite any amount of attention Hewitt gets for her considerable, um, assets, there’s no denying her onscreen charm and warm, likable presence. The show wisely trades upon the empathy she spent five seasons of Ghost Whisperer perfecting by making her character a prostitute with a purpose: to help the men who come to her with more than just a quick hand job. In fact, Lifetime may have invented the “hooker procedural” here, as each week is set up with a new guest star client with a new problem for Riley to help solve. It’s a bit more subtle than that in execution, but not much. The idea is ridiculous on its face, but Hewitt’s girl-next-door persona totally sells it, at least for the time being.
Also pleasant are her scenes with her mother (Cybill Shepherd, reprising her role from the movie), best friend Lacey (Rebecca Field), and spa boss Georgia (Loretta Divine, doing her Loretta Devine thing). There’s a really great emotional center to the show rooted in these various female relationships, one that can only benefit the series going forward. Although the show revolves around Hewitt’s character’s interaction with her male clients, what’s holding the show together are the women who stand by her side after her husband leaves her. The cast is actually predominantly women, with Riley’s coworkers also sharing many scenes together discussing their work and personal lives alike. Those scenes are less successful and still working on finding a good ensemble groove, but they definitely show potential for the future.
Aside from the show’s conflicting ideas about Riley’s job, there are also confusing things happening with her home life. Her husband disappears, but a new love interest is immediately slotted in his place, her brother-in-law Evan (Colin Egglesfield, continuing his streak of being the best looking but most boring thing about every project he’s in). The mystery of the husband’s disappearance is obviously being played as an evolving storyline, so having the husband’s brother carry such an obvious torch for Riley so early on is far too blandly obvious and predictable.
The question as the series goes on is how it will manage to continue the tension here. A big part of the premise is Riley lying to her loved ones about what’s really happening at her job. What’s unclear is how long the writers can keep this interesting and fresh while still advancing the stories of her balancing these two very distinct lives. Hewitt’s charms, while considerable, can only go so far before the story is going to need to do the heavy lifting. For now, however, her infectious lead performance is enough to make the show worth checking out for the Lifetime-inclined.
Just don’t go in expecting a thorough exploration of the moral complications of the premise, because in Lifetime’s world, it’s all sexy all the time, baby.