U.S. women’s network Lifetime wants to leap into riskier programming, but there’s not much risk in parading around the same old cardboard cut-out female—and male—archetypes.
Ladies, who’s ready for a good cry? Last month, Shaw Media announced that, starting Aug. 27, U.S. women’s network Lifetime would replace Canadian channel Showcase Diva. Lifetime’s roster boasts 20 reality programs and just nine scripted ones, six of which are syndicated re-runs. For 12 years, its slogan was “Television for Women.” This is the mothership of women’s networks.
Jennifer Love-Hewitt stars in its latest offering, The Client List, which originated as a Golden Globe–nominated 2010 Lifetime original movie—also starring Hewitt—about a former Texas homecoming queen who takes a job at a massage parlour, only to discover the masseuses are actually prostitutes. Of course, it was based on a true story.
The TV version airbrushes much of the seediness out of the original: Hewitt’s character, Riley, is not pushed into prostitution—just handies. Loretta Devine plays Georgia, who runs a spa called The Rub and acts as both madam and den mother to the women she employs. “Ninety per cent of what we do here is legit,” she assures Riley, who quickly learns she can’t make enough money to support her two kids by giving regular massages. But Riley’s crossover to the seedy side is as harmless as a pillow fight; here, a hand job is simply a more glamorous version of a backrub.
Still, The Client List is a bold move for Lifetime, which up until a few years ago targetted older women. When it premiered in 2007, Army Wives (one of the network’s other scripted dramas, about women whose spouses are enlisted) ushered in a new, (slightly) racier era for the network and quickly became Lifetime’s biggest-ever hit. The Client List pushes the envelope that much further, but while Lifetime wants to excite you, it mostly wants you to feel safe.
Riley seems to enjoy the role-play as much as the men do, not to mention the variety of cleavage-bearing outfits she whips out. In a way, she serves as a slutty therapist: Each client arrives at the spa with an underlying problem that neatly explains his predilection for rub-and-tugs. These men are not a threat. They’re offered up as a sinful treat for the women watching at home, the hard-bodied equivalent of an ice-cream binge.
Although I wouldn’t exactly call it progress to simply replace a Barbie with a Ken doll, it is refreshing to see men play a part typically reserved for young female actresses: the interchangeable hottie. Despite its title, The Client List isn’t all that interested in the clients. In fact, it’s not all that interested in men, period. After Riley’s husband walks out on her in the first episode, we’re left with his brother, Evan, who harbours a secret crush on our handsy protagonist. If not for Evan, the only men on The Client List would be the fleetingly glimpsed ones Riley services each week.
If The Client List’s depiction of female relationships resembles a no-boys-allowed slumber party, it’s largely a reflection of the specialty channel’s mission to deliver a select demographic to its advertisers. On Lifetime, you might notice an abundance of commercials for cleaning supplies, say, or yogurt—strictly “women’s products.”
Riley is supported by a village of women, including her feisty mother, Linette (Cybill Shepherd), who raised her kids without a husband. Then again, she also tells her daughter, “If god meant for women to be single, he would have taught us all how to use a hammer.” The women on The Client List seem to need men only for their tools—literal and anatomical. From its protective perch, advertising aimed at women also feeds off the idea that a man may be able to fix your sink or get you off, but no one knows you—or what you really want—better than your gal pals.
Lifetime changed its slogan this year to the somewhat defensive “Your Life. Your Time,” as if to assure women they have every right to spend several guilt-free hours watching Dance Moms: Miami. But whose life is supposed to be reflected in the network’s programs? Not your average mother, and certainly not any woman who’s experienced what it’s like to give happy endings to feed her kids. Lifetime wants to leap into riskier programming, but there’s not much risk in parading around the same old cardboard cut-out female—and male—archetypes: the saintly single mother, the chubby best friend, the evil ex-husband, the bitchy backstabber. I think I’m ready to cry now.
The Client List premieres Sept. 2 on Lifetime.