Lifetime's 'The Client List' and 'Army Wives': Two Of The Best Soap Operas On TV

As we saw last season with the creative challenges that compromised ABC’s “Revenge,” which went from white-hot in its freshman year to lukewarm in a dramatic sophomore slump, the maintenance of an effective prime-time soap opera that does not revolve around doctors, lawyers, detectives, supernatural beings or the kinds of characters found only in science fiction is way more difficult than it looks.

In hindsight, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” a prime-time soap that generated enviable ratings and became a true pop-culture phenomenon for many of its eight seasons without relying on primary characters that fell into any of those categories, seems to have been a minor miracle. Memories of “Housewives” at its best can’t help but generate passionate curiosity among fans of the genre for Lifetime’s upcoming serial “Devious Maids,” like “Housewives” a creation from the sometimes scary psyche of writer and executive producer Marc Cherry.

Speaking of Lifetime, for some reason it has received very little media attention in recent years for its Sunday night soap opera block, featuring two of the most entertaining serials on television, “Army Wives” and “The Client List.” I’ve written before about the latter, which each week plays very much like a Hallmark movie -- albeit one with hand jobs. The Hallmark comparison is deliberate: that’s how wholesome and heartwarming “Client List” can be when it tells stories about family, friendship and community, which it does as well as any other similarly focused series on television, including NBC’s “Parenthood” and The CW’s “Hart of Dixie.”

But “Client List” is more consistently moving and infinitely sexier than the rest, largely due to the many talents of series lead Jennifer Love Hewitt, who excels as a perpetually put-upon wife, mother and daughter who juggles mounting problems at home with the demands of her job as manager of and popular masseuse at a high-end massage parlor that offers “happy endings” to select clientele. This show could play like one long joke, but everyone involved has too much self-confidence for that. The cast, which includes Cybill Shepherd, Loretta Devine, Greg Grunberg and Colin Egglesfield, hits every note with emotional perfection. Even without the sexual component “Client List” would be an irresistible weekly pleasure.

As of this writing, “Army Wives” had just concluded a very compelling seventh season and has yet to be renewed for an eighth. I can’t claim to have stayed with this show during the previous six years, but when I weigh the unremarkable drama that I remember it being early on against the very sturdy and satisfying show I watched these last few months, it seems to me that Lifetime ought to continue with it. “Wives” somewhat surprisingly matured into a gem of a prime-time soap that found great strength in narrative restraint. In other words, characters were shown dealing with demanding situations rather than just crying or fighting or otherwise screaming at each other. It also offered timely and thought-provoking explorations of issues that our military families deal with on an ongoing basis even as most of their countrymen busy themselves with other things. And this season it gave Brooke Shields and Jesse McCartney their best dramatic roles ever. (I’m not kidding.)

If asked about prime-time soaps a couple of years ago, I would have said that we’ll never again see the likes of “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest,” not to mention the first versions of “90210” and “Melrose Place.” But then TNT’s “Dallas” came along. Like The CW’s reboot of “90210,” which lasted longer than it deserved to, and its revival of “Melrose Place,” which was a much faster failure, the new “Dallas” is a continuation of its old self, with many of the original characters on hand to tantalize veteran viewers and a bevy of handsome young hunks and beautiful young women to presumably attract a newer and younger audience.

 While “Dallas” has been successful enough for TNT to recently renew it for a third season, its creative team is going to have to work awfully hard to give it some direction following the death earlier this year of irreplaceable actor Larry Hagman and his character J.R. Ewing, who in the reboot -- as in the original -- gave this somewhat stale franchise an enduring and endearing energy that was much missed in the final episodes of season two (after J.R.’s funeral), and will be painfully absent in season three. The only character with any real complexity is Linda Gray’s still riveting Sue Ellen Ewing (a character Gray has now portrayed in five different decades).

The younger actors on the show could learn a lot simply by studying how Gray gives herself over to her character and the situations Sue Ellen finds herself in. Meantime, the writers should learn to be as fearless in devising difficult situations for all of the Ewings and their acquaintances as Gray is in tackling whatever comes her way, including Sue Ellen’s latest stumble in her decades-long struggle with alcoholism. Her boozy eulogy at J.R.’s funeral is one of the underappreciated treasures of this television year.

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