You've Got To Hand It To 'The Client List' -- And To 'Mad Men'

Television never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, along comes a new drama series about a masseuse that features happy endings in every episode. Then another show, one that couldn’t be more different and is widely regarded as one of the best in the history of the medium, offers up a hand job of its own.

The first of these is Lifetime’s “The Client List,” about a woman starting over after her husband leaves her and their two small children. It’s actually a decent little show, even with a dramatic component some might call naughty, if not indecent. Jennifer Love Hewitt brings the unparalleled ability to cry on cue and look beautiful doing it that she perfected on “The Ghost Whisperer” to her role as Riley Parks, a Texas wife and mother who suddenly finds herself in dire financial straits and takes a job as a “therapist” at an upscale “spa” known as The Rub of Sugarland. Before the first episode was over, Riley learned that there was much more money to be made at work if she were willing to offer her male clients “special treatment.” Fortunately, all of them to date (at least those the audience has seen) have been well-built, handsome, smart, sensitive guys, which must make the task at hand somewhat easier to, um, handle.

Riley isn’t just good with her hands; she’s also a caring and sensitive listener and pleased to offer the men on her table some friendly advice about how to fix whatever is wrong in their lives (most of their problems involve women). This part of the show is nicely balanced with her home life, which is shared with her two children, her mother and her brother-in-law, a swell guy who does all he can to help Riley and the kids after his brother bolts. It’s impossible to talk about this show without making it sound sleazy and ridiculous, but the truth is it often feels as warm and wholesome as a Hallmark Channel movie.

Further elevating “The Client List” is its fine supporting cast, which includes a nicely understated Cybill Shepherd as Riley’s mom, Loretta Devine as her boss and Colin Egglesfield as her brother-in-law, plus hunk-of-the-week guest stars who are required to strip, lie down and let Jennifer Love Hewitt move her hands all around their bodies. I imagine a guest shot on this show is currently one of the more sought-after jobs in Hollywood for every young male actor (and maybe a few older ones, too).

There isn’t another show quite like “The Client List” anywhere on television. As adult as it is, it never feels salacious or vulgar, perhaps because Riley never takes things beyond the hand action, and she’s just so sweet and sincere about it all. If it were on pay cable, “The Client List” would probably go too far and lose whatever easygoing entertainment value it has. Conversely, if it were watered down for broadcast there would be nothing much to talk about here. But it gets the basic-cable balance is just right.

All that said, a collective three weeks' worth of happy endings on “The Client List” haven’t been nearly as impactful as the handy a stoned Peggy gave that guy in the striped pants during a matinee of “Born Free” in last Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.” (Thankfully, we saw her washing her hands afterwards.)

Roger and Jane’s life-altering adventure with LSD was a trip, and there was something absolutely epic about Don and Megan’s marital meltdown at that Howard Johnson’s (and their rough runaround later at their apartment). But it was the sequence in which Peggy sought refuge in a movie theater during a very bad day at the office that stretched the ol’ content barrier. As the scene began, I was briefly transported back to the Saturday afternoon in 1966 when my friends and I went to see “Born Free” at the once glorious Community Theater in Fairfield, Conn. But as it continued, any memories about what it was like to watch “Born Free” at the movies were forever tainted by Peggy and her movie “companion.” After smoking a joint or two, the smell of which didn’t seem to offend or attract anyone else in the theater, Peggy added to the enjoyment of this stranger's movie-going experience -- right after Joy and George Adamson first released Elsa the lioness into the wild!

To this day, just thinking about “Born Free” stirs a number of emotions in me, from sadness to compassion to sweet nostalgia. But after last Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men” it is entirely possible that thinking about “Born Free” is going to make me feel a little bit dirty, too.     

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