In the final instalment of the series – here are the first four parts – James Milne knocks off the remaining episodes of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cancelled borderline softcore porn series The Client List in its entirety. He reflects upon his televisual journey.
On any normal day, stumbling upon The Client List, I might have watched up to thirty seconds before switching over to seek something more suitable to my tastes. I probably would have favoured CRC Motorsport or Aotearoa Hunting – just about anything really. To embark then upon eighteen hours of critical viewing, spread over five weeks in which it occupied my thoughts to some degree, was an action contrary to all my best instincts.
Throughout the experience I tried to look at myself as an anthropologist. Studying what? The United States of America I guess – its social mores and cultural oddities as represented across the 25 extant episodes. On another level, I was trying to enter the mind of a different kind of televisual consumer. I wanted to rationalise what role this kind of show could play in someone’s life and perhaps somehow reverse-engineer the conditions that led them to be watching and enjoying this show.
I would be hard pushed to say I discovered anything truly new about the United States from watching The Client List. At the most, it tended to reignite some preconceptions and prejudices that had lain dormant. Some of these are simply reductive jokes, at least partially created by their media depictions – such as that of every American checking themselves into rehab after the slightest regretful bender. Throughout the final five episodes of the show, Riley’s mother Linette is in a rehab facility. This costs the already stretched Riley an absurd amount of money, and sidelines the formidable acting talents of Cybill Shepherd. In my personal experience, it does seem like an astounding proportion of Americans have been in rehab, but nonetheless, it’s not a trend that can be validated by its depiction on The Client List.
It was on the subject of parochial American small town life that The Client List perhaps came closest to providing genuine, virginal insight. High school histories and college football heroics loom large over people’s lives, still dictating their actions half a lifetime later. A recurring character in the show is Taylor Berkhalter – a kind of nouveau riche country club type – whose high school rivalry with Riley haunts their every encounter. Even in the penultimate episode, after her gradual redemption from villain to comic relief, she’s at the school reunion still lording her success in the class presidential election over Riley.
It is singularly depressing to conceive that one’s actions in high school could dictate one’s later life so strongly and yet, in The Client List, this idea resonates with some degree of truth. The show simulates this temporal claustrophobia regularly – and with some force. No number of Beroccas or Bloody Marys can shake the hangover of youth in The Client List’s depiction of Beaumont, TX.
On my other anthropological task – of entering the mind of the willing viewer – I have also had mixed success. There have been times during previous weeks’ writings in which I have alluded to enjoying moments of the show, of succumbing to its (guilty) pleasures. Mea culpa – I was lying. Well, kind of. There were indeed glimpses when my inner cynic briefly shut down and I was able to enjoy the plot without it being clouded by dark thoughts of resentment. However, these were few and far between, and never sustained long enough for me to get any great insight into the mind of this notional viewer.
I experienced the greatest concentration of these moments of “enjoyment” during the final five episodes that I watched this week. I’ve an inkling that this was mainly a sense of exhilaration at the imminent end of this Herculean (or was it Sisyphean?) task. I sometimes think that over these five weeks, I had sub-consciously digested the show’s logic and intent, and was more readily able to accept what was happening without question. Normally one would not spend five weeks working oneself into the position where they might be able to enjoy limited aspects of a television show. Nonetheless, it felt like a kind of vindication for my efforts.
For example, throughout season two, the increasingly lovable Lacey and Dale have been going through great difficulties trying to have a child. In episode 11, Lacey experiences a miscarriage. A new, exceedingly cute plot develops in which they get approved for adoption, but the teenage girl who is adopting out the baby seems to change her mind. In an emotional scene, the teenager describes Lacey and Dale as “the most lovely people I’ve ever met,” and at that moment I really couldn’t disagree. They were probably the most goodhearted fictional characters I’ve ever encountered.
Riley’s former nemesis at The Rub, Selena, and male therapist/war hero/objectified hunk of meat Derek also provided some genuinely entertaining moments. During the show’s home straight, they constantly flirt with taking their “fun buddy” relationship to something more serious – all the while never wanting to be the first one to admit their true feelings. Perhaps the plot drags on a little too long, but I never found it to be anything other than televisual entertainment at its silly, escapist best.
It was in these moments that I could understand how someone could watch The Client List without all my pretentious hangups. They’re successful scenes and plotlines because they twin escapism with empathy. The Derek/Selena and Lacey/Dale plotlines were fantasies played out by likable, somewhat imperfect and relatable characters. In contrast, Riley Parks’ journey was never particularly enjoyable. It featured too much hardship and self-sacrifice, played out by a character who was unrelatable because she was so absurdly willing to subject herself to that self-sacrifice. Riley is about the most insufferably noble fictional character I can recall. Even Jesus let himself have a bit of a whinge from time to time.
Ultimately, if The Client List had revealed more convincing universal human truths, I would likely never have sought to seek deeper meanings and intimations from the show. In a time of no rainfall we must dig deeper wells. The Client List’s facile concepts forced me to excavate whopping great caverns before I could find the slightest drops of quenching inspiration. But lo, I was quenched – not often by the show itself, but by the questions it raised; by the personal epiphanies it inspired; by Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mediocre music career.
When the show finished, my great sense of relief was tainted by the knowledge that the plot, no matter how trite and implausible, would never be resolved. There’s something profoundly sad about that. No climax, no final chord, no curtain call – like death – just oblivion.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.