Thoughts on “The Client List”

So after using “CTV Throwback” to test out my Roku, I found that there were a lot of shows on there that I’d want to watch, and while it has commercials they are less than you’d see on normal television — although they’re repetitive — and so found that it was a bit of a pleasant surprise.  However, I have way too many things to watch to focus on that one, especially since it has commercials (and since there doesn’t seem to be a way to power Roku off and since it gets pretty warm it’s also not something that I can watch in the winter since deliberately unplugging it when there’s a lot of static electricity in the air is a recipe for disaster).  So instead I decided to test that out a bit more with a show that I couldn’t get anywhere else in “Time of Your Life”, and then decided to wrap up my Jennifer Love Hewitt exploration with “The Client List”.

The basic premise here is that a young woman with two kids has her husband suddenly abandon her with a huge debt load and with her having no job, but she runs into someone she used to work with who says that she makes tons of money at a massage parlour/spa and recommends that she apply, and when she does she discovers that while it does operate legitimately for very special customers — the ones written down on the titular “Client List” — it offers extra services, including “happy endings”.  Riley (the woman) is shocked at first but as the bills mount and the tips for regular massages turn out to be rather small she eventually agrees to do that, trying to balance her secret life with her friends and family and all the issues that follow from her husband leaving her.

Now, what I noticed first is that while this wasn’t a bad show, it wasn’t really my type of show.  It really, especially at first, came across as what I feared “Ghost Whisperer” would turn out to be:  a somewhat dramatic premise that focuses on the more normal and romantic drama as well as on relationships and balancing relationships and all of that jazz.  There the underlying drama element was ghosts while here it was the illegality and potential immorality of her being a sex worker.  But while “Ghost Whisperer” did focus more on the ghosts than on the simple relationship drama, “The Client List” focused more on the relationships — including her forming a relationship with her husband’s brother, who always had a crush on her — and used the sex work as a complicating element, not as the focus that the relationships were formed around.  As I just said, this didn’t make the show bad, especially since Riley’s personality is almost identical to Melinda’s and I liked Melinda so I like Riley.  But that’s not the typical sort of show I go for, either preferring the more melodramatic drama of soap operas — and not even all that many of those — or else shows that doesn’t really have that kind of relationship focus at all.  So, yeah, it’s not the sort of show I normally watch and so I’m not at all the audience for this show.

Which, of course, makes it somewhat difficult to talk about it, especially if I’m going to criticize it.  If I criticize the elements of it that I don’t like, I run the risk of criticizing those specific elements that are there because the intended audience like it, and it’s not fair to criticize a work for doing precisely what its intended audience wants them to do.  And it’s even risky to praise it, since things that I like about it may be things that turn off the intended audience.  Given that this is a show that lasted two seasons and a total of 25 episodes, it has to be seen as a bit of a failure — especially for an American show with this much star power (Cybill Shepard, for example, plays Riley’s mother) — and so there was likely something that was appealing about it but things that didn’t work, and having watched it I’m going to want to talk about where I think it might have went wrong, while having to be careful to not end up saying that it went wrong because of the things that actually appealed to the intended audience.  That being said, I think I did manage to find a flaw that even those who like that sort of show would have had issues with.

Especially given my specific reaction to the show.  Late in the run, I found myself comparing it to what I thought of “Time of Your Life” and was thinking that despite its length it’s something that I might be willing to watch again, unlike that show.  And then about a half hour later I found myself completely frustrated with the show and wondered why in the world I’d ever thought that.  And the reason, it seems to me, is that I like the characters and the performances, and there are some good side plots involving them.  A number of them as well — Riley’s best friend Lacey and her husband Dale, Nikki the young college student at the spa, her mother at the salon she works at — work very well as lighter characters that can add some humour and some comic relief from the drama.  So I like seeing the characters and would like watching them and even getting to know them better.  That made me want to potentially rewatch it.

However, the issue is that there ends up being way, way too much drama in the show.  As noted, at the start the main premise — Riley is doing something illegal and possibly immoral that she needs to keep from her friends and family but that provides the money she needs to support her family — is a complication to the rest of the relationship drama, not the main focus.  Her starting to date again and becoming attracted to her brother-in-law and all of the issues around being someone whose husband abandoned her and the kids is enough drama for this sort of show.  Later, after she starts an actual relationship with her brother-in-law (Evan), having her husband (Kyle) return at the end of the first season is in itself a bit more drama than a show like this needs, but it isn’t really a problem.  However, they also reveal that Kyle left because he had an addiction to pain killers, which is more drama than was needed, given that he could have just left to try to find a job and make some money to support the family, but it’s not terrible.  However, soon afterwards they pull a bait-and-switch by implying that Riley is going to be arrested for the sex work and instead arresting Kyle because he participated in a theft to raise some money.  Not only is this much more drama than they needed, it doesn’t help at all in making us find him at all sympathetic, which we’d need to do if there is going to be any chance of them reconciling to make the love triangle a real triangle.  That legal angle creates all sorts of other complications, including and especially financially, and takes up a fair amount of screen time and Riley’s drama time.

And on top of that, there’s a lot of other things going on as well.  Georgia, the original owner of the spa, at one point gets Riley to manage things, which starts a rift between her and the person who brought her in, Selena.  This one was a bit odd and made the character less sympathetic because she immediately creates a lot of good ideas and is capable of managing things despite not having any experience with that since her education was indeed only in massage.  If she had done that to work her way through school and had lost her job as something like an administrative assistant, it would have made that more credible and avoided it looking like the show was trying to make her be great at everything.  But this leads to Riley eventually buying Georgia out when Georgia wants to get married, and then having to take over all the issues, including the legal ones, which creates incidents where she needs to manage clients and the police and competitors.  She has to learn how to hire new girls — since the ones from the first season pretty much all left except for Selena — and hires Nikki, a seemingly sweet girl who provides a great balance with Selena, but soon after the two of them have a spat and she quits to go back to stripping for a sleazy strip club owner, which means that they need to rescue her from him, which creates him as an adversary, added to the guy that Kyle stole from.  Meanwhile, Lacey wants to have a baby and Dale doesn’t.  Riley’s main rival Taylor buys the salon where her mother works and her mother wants to try to buy it instead and fails, causing more complications for Riley who wants to help with the financing for that, and Taylor and her mother clash over that.  Dale starts a band again which causes issues because Riley used to sing with that band (which ends up being an excuse to get her to sing, which Jennifer Love Hewitt does love to do in her shows) and Lacey isn’t happy that he kept it from her.  The two of them decide to have a baby but she’s not fully fertile, and when she does manage to get pregnant she ends up being attacked at Riley’s home by someone and loses the baby.  Riley’s mother gets in an accident and gets injured, which causes her to become addicted to pain killers.  Riley opens up the spa to a male masseur and female clients, to Georgia’s objections.  The male masseur and Selena potentially start something, while Selena’s almost ex-husband shows up to formally divorce her and take her beloved horse, which Riley has to help resolve.  Lacey and Dale decide to adopt.  Evan decides to become a police officer and meets a fellow cadet as competition for Riley as a love interest.  And it all comes together when Riley loses the client list which spawns an entire arc where her adversary gets it and tries to use it to avoid the police raiding him.

That’s a lot of arcs, and there are a few others around Taylor and the kids that I didn’t bother to mention.  Remember, this is a show that only had 25 total episodes, with a set of arcs that soap operas would find excessive, with a lot less time and a lot less characters to spread those arcs around on.  The show was definitely overstuffed, and the issue with that is that it doesn’t leave room or time to explore the characters or relationships as much as they should be and as much as the audience would like.  If the audience liked a specific plot or set of characters, they would get to see them a bit more than they got.  Moreover, a lot of the lighter arcs didn’t play well with the more dramatic ones, especially towards the end when the main plots involved people going to jail or being killed or being ruined.  The very last episode is a prime example of this, where in an episode where Riley is desperately trying to get the titular client list back before it ends up getting her sent to prison with a dramatic scheme that includes burning down the spa, they take time to have Derek and Selena have a clash over their relationship.  I didn’t mind the Derek/Selena plot and it worked pretty well, but it just creates a huge Mood Whiplash to flip between the two and spawned in me the reaction of “Don’t you (the show) have more important things to talk about right now?”.  As you can see, a lot of the arcs are lighter than standard drama fare, some are standard drama fare, and some are very dark and dramatic.  It’s a good thing to have some lighter fare as comic relief or even just relief from deep drama, but you just can’t shift gears with it as quickly as they do, or else you’ll ruin your transmission.

The show also has some issues with the relationships.  The more central one is with Kyle, who obviously is not sympathetic since he leaves Riley and who doesn’t become more sympathetic when he returns due to his legal issues and the fact that Evan was presented as far nicer and more reliable than him and who, rightly, is ticked off at Kyle for leaving.  And yet towards the end Riley ends up not feeling that it’s right to date the uncle and so breaks up with Evan so that she can then start to reconcile with Kyle, whom we have no reason to like and who still has legal issues and the like to deal with.  The show actually parodies this at one point — and their own show — with a soap opera that has a similar — if overly dramatic — situation (and it even parodies the fanservice of the show) and concludes that the husband in that case is unsympathetic and the brother is more likable, and yet the show itself didn’t seem to realize that.  Kyle doesn’t really do anything to redeem himself enough to be at least the presumptive candidate for Riley by the end of the show, and so those scenes are a bit annoying.

The less central but more impactful one is with Nikki.  As I noted above, she started as a sweet girl who would make a good foil for Selena.  When they created the “quit” conflict that introduced the adversary to the plot, I thought it was an overly dramatic element and did want to see where it went a bit but felt that it wasn’t necessary.  However, it is revealed later that Nikki is the one who takes the client list, and she did it for that adversary because she’s in love with and having a relationship with him.  At the time, Riley doesn’t know that she took it, but this causes us to no longer consider Nikki a sweet girl, but at least in part as a villain and as someone who is manipulating everyone.  However, a later episode relies on us thinking of her as such, when she teases Selena about finding a date for Georgia’s wedding.  When Riley finds out about it and confronts her, she claims that the adversary threatened to kill her if she didn’t which is believable but isn’t what we saw and know happened, which makes her out to be a liar even in a scene and with words that are supposed to make us sympathetic towards her, especially given that right after it is revealed that she has lost the client list too and is very apologetic, which leads to her helping Riley get it back (and probably to her death, as the adversary, when he finds out, is choking her while demanding to know where Riley went, and while it seems that she does tell him, it’s quite likely that he still killed her).  So a lot of the plots only work with her as someone somewhat sweet and so sympathetic, and yet how the show is built works against that.

What I would have done was have her not be actually in love with the adversary, but instead out of at least fear after Riley gets her out of the situation decides to work with the police to bring him down.  This would have played well and provided a reason why the police, at the end, were closing in on him.  She could have been pretending to be in love with him to get access to where he keeps his important stuff, and a previous episode established that getting the safe combination is important.  He could have asked her to spy on Riley and especially to get the client list, which she does figuring that if she gives it to him she can find out where he keeps those sorts of things and give that information to the police to take him down, but then realizes that either the adversary would use it against Riley or else if the police found it they’d use it against Riley and she couldn’t do that to her after she helped her, which then could lead to all the same events but with Nikki being a more sympathetic and somewhat redeemed character.  It also would make it more reasonable that she’d be able to spawn the raid that pulls the police off for the time Riley needed to get the client list back, since if she was working with them there’d be no question of whether they should trust her word and if it fails she’d be able to fall back on “I guess he played me” rather than having all her credibility shot and so likely ending up in prison over it, with her police immunity gone. Done properly, we can still see that she’s a good character while not hurting the drama.

Then again, Riley herself chides her for being able to seem sweet when she wants to, so perhaps we weren’t supposed to see her as that.  But then the scenes where she does act sweet suffer from the ambiguity, or else don’t work, especially on a rewatch (and of course, there was at least one where it relied on her being sweet after we no longer see her as such).

After watching a show that ends early like this, it always makes me curious to think about whether they knew the cancellation was coming or whether they were surprised.  This show pretty much ties up all the loose ends and leaves little to do in later seasons unless they completely redo the premise or else simply rebuild the spa, making that drama somewhat pointless.  Riley burns down the spa along with the titular client list, her mother moves away, and Lacey gets a baby.  Either they’d have to push the reset button and restore the spa, or else they’d have to deal with the aftermath itself, which would be a quite different show.  So it does resolve the show well enough and makes it so that it would be quite difficult to continue the series in the form it had for the first two seasons.

The show, of course, has copious amounts of fanservice, both male and female, and seems to contrive to add even more, with Riley having to audition as a stripper in the finale as part of her plan.  I don’t mind it, but it does seem contrived to ensure that it happens rather than something that just follows naturally, and so the focus on that again takes up screentime that could have been used to further their plots.  However, they also needed to cut some plots.  Ultimately, while I think that more could have been done with this cast and these characters, most of which I liked, the frustration of the overstuffed drama and ruined characters means that I won’t watch this show again.

Next up is the 90s X-Men animated series, which is also back to a blissfully commercial-less existence.

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