Ultra-Soft Porn

Jennifer Love Hewitt is a family-friendly sex kitten in The Client List.

Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Jennifer Love Hewitt stars in The Client List

Photograph by Michael Desmond/©2012 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.

You may have heard some buzz about a forthcoming TV show that explores 21st century women—their carnal wants, their emotional needs—with uncommon frankness and rare subtlety. It advances the artistic vision of a feature-length film that debuted in 2010; its star is already an icon among a certain set; and the program, all in all, resets the bar for exploring sexuality and the friendship of girls on television. I refer, of course, to The Client List (Lifetime, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as the standout employee of a Texas massage parlor. It is adapted from a Lifetime movie of same title, Hewitt’s performance in which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. This is not a joke. I mean, they’re a joke, the Globes are, but the earlier performance earned the actress her greatest awards-season recognition since she received her 1999 Teen Choice trophy for “Choice Actress” in I Know What You Did Last Summer.

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. In another promo, Hewitt, behind the rhetorical wheel of an Oldsmobile Snowclone, declares, “This is not your mother’s Lifetime.” Given the subject matter, I’d really rather that she left my mother out of it, but point taken. Your mother’s Lifetime—best known for airing poorly shot films about weepy women in jeopardy—is adapting itself to your mother’s middle America, and The Client List is something of a promotional video for the network’s ongoing makeover.

In picking up America’s Most Wanted after Fox discarded it, Lifetime is skipping the middleman of fiction and ripping its Gothic thrills straight from the police scanner. In continuing to air Dance Moms—on which whorishly attired children endure verbal bludgeoning—it is demonstrating an impressive commitment to reality-show amorality. In airing the fashion competition 24-Hour Catwalk—helmed by the Vogue-approved it-girl Alexa Chung—it is threatening to do something at least slightly cool. And now here we have a giddy pulp fantasy about sex work with a fantastically polished surface. Bearing a glow that recalls The Hills, The Client List is so cinematographically spiffy that its genial meaninglessness seems almost beside the point.

Hewitt is just the star this production needs. From her emergence on the teen soap Party of Five, through the knowing horror of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and unto The Ghost Whisperer—that supernatural drama gooier than ectoplasm—Hewitt has been an upper-lowbrow icon and family-friendly sex kitten. Here, her peppy prettiness proves unthreatening enough to render her character, Riley Parks, thoroughly approachable, much as her upbeat blandness serves as a blank slate for the audience to project fantasies upon. This is ultra-soft porn—softer than Charmin, softer than lingerie ads—and the ideal viewer’s husband will find himself mildly titillated by the views upon Riley’s cleavage. 

The ideal viewer herself will be gently stirred by the abs on Riley’s beefcakey clientele and the broad grin on her love interest. That would be her brother-in-law, the sibling of a husband who appears to have skipped town; he is played by Colin Egglesfield, who looks like an elongated Tom Cruise. Cybill Shepherd, 41 years after The Last Picture Show, is back in the Lone Star State to play Riley’s mother. Her face is so full with intelligence and toughness that she closely resembles the artist formerly known as Hillary Rodham, and her performance is sharper than this trifling series requires. Hewitt perhaps strikes the truer note in playing her role as if The Client List is all about light role play. I refer you to yet another video, where Hewitt/Riley belts out Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender,” assuring us that this is just fun, laughs, a good time. (Not incidentally, the actress, a non-incompetent singer, acquits herself admirably in the scenes where she and her colleagues blow off steam at karaoke.) She gets to have it all, in a Cosmo kind of way—to be a bad girl and a family woman. You get the sense she’s headed for a happy ending.