I hate to be the 8-millionth person to jump on the bandwagon, but we need to talk about that show about young women on TV! In it, a group of young women have awful, degrading sexual relations due to their economic circumstances, and try to convince themselves that it’s anything but degrading. The characters are desperately struggling to make ends meet, but nearly every problem can be solved with a man ejaculating to an incongruous indie music soundtrack. And our heroine, with her back against the wall and not a dollar to her name, does what any woman in her situation would: get a job at a sensual massage parlor and start handjobbin’ so her kids can have Christmas and/or a house to have Christmas in. Right. We are not talking about “Girls,” though we will have to talk about “Girls.”
Because I recognize that you are a skeptical internet person with limited time, let me lay out my arguments for the cultural importance of “The Client List,” the new Lifetime series starring Jennifer Love Hewitt that has created absolutely zero hubbub and argument on the Internet.
First of all, do any television shows at all warrant this kind of criticism? Are they really that important to the culture?
Yes, they are. Or can be, anyway. There is a growing body of study suggesting that parasocial (parasocial meaning via media and usually one-sided, rather than actual human-to-human) contact with people who are different from the viewer (to date, the research mostly deals in gay characters) can decrease prejudice in the same way that actual contact has been shown to do.
The parasocial contact hypothesis states that “If a majority group member has little opportunity for interpersonal interaction with minority group members, parasocial interaction potentially could provide such contact.” As it turns out, people can learn to be more tolerant from exposure to minority groups in television (actual line from that study: “‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ provides an unusually rich stimulus”). By at least this standard, media influences people.
Well, ok, but does “The Client List” in particular warrant this kind of attention? It has nowhere near the cultural impact that “Girls” does.
I am sure that you are more likely to have seen “Girls” than “The Client List.” However, each of the first three episodes of “The Client List” have been watched by about 2.8 million people. The first two episodes of “Girls” were watched by about 1.1 million per episode—and those numbers include the same-night repeat episode. (“Girls” did 858,000 viewers for the original run.) “The Client List” is 40 minutes, while “Girls” is 30 minutes. Sure, “Girls” is smarter and Zeitgeistier, but that only counts toward winning on the internet.
The evidence for “Girls” otherworldly importance is simply not there, and pretty sure Lena Dunham would be the first to agree. So, how did Girls become the most-tweeted about show evar?
For starters, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say “Girls” has the best title for a show in the history of television. Everyone likes girls! How was “Girls” not taken already? It’s a pretty bold move to name your show after a diminutive for an entire gender.
HBO went for those Louis C.K.-style profiles of the comedian/auteur, and flung all credit for the show’s production at Lena Dunham like the little rose petals that her servants drop at her feet as if she were Jaffe Joffer, King of Zamunda (or so I’ve read on some Tumblr somewhere, it must be true). It’s really easy to pick a subject for a story about a show created by Lena Dunham, written by Lena Dunham, directed by Lena Dunham, starring Lena Dunham, brought to you by Executive Producer Lena Dunham. You just talk to/about Lena Dunham. That she’s a “new face” makes it even easier. That she’s a great interview helps even more.
(The Judd Apatow co-sign helps: his support for a woman-centric comedy is useful because he has a reputation for producing hugely successful male-centric, at-times misogynistic things, so it creates this air of “oooh, he must see something magical in the show if Dunham pulled him away from making Knocked Up 2: Planned Parenthood.”)
And why did the Internet spend two weeks on fire about “Girls”? Because it naturally courts at least one oft-marginalized group of people: smart young women who are smart young writers. You know where else you can find smart women who either want to be or are writers? Writing on the internet! And in magazines! Cool! Salon’s Willa Paskin—ironically enough in light of the show’s whole “all-white” problem—referred to the show as FUBU, as in For Us, By Us. (She did not say this about “Veep.” Which, incidentally, did 1.7 million viewers in the night.)
All of these reasons account for the endless chatter, and (likely!) contributed to its modest but strong early ratings. And meanwhile, while newspapers all bit and did their share to fill their TV columns, almost literally no one on the Internet is talking about “The Client List.” Why is that?
“The Client List” is on Lifetime. Lifetime’s new branding position is “Not Your Mother’s Lifetime.” That is about enough said. Lifetime is so un-Internet-ey that the domain name lifetime.com takes you to Lifetime Products, Inc., makers of outdoor furniture and residential basketball equipment.
It can fairly be assumed the demographic for “The Client List” skews older and less urban than that of “Girls” because I think everything’s viewership is older and less urban than that of “Girls.” There’s a price to pay for that (presuming you care about Internet hubbub).
“The Client List” is a familiar, schlocky drama, so much so that it can be difficult for younger viewers to suspend disbelief. In the first episode, our protagonist Riley Parks’ husband “goes to the store to get a pack of cigarettes” never to return. It’s not until the third episode that she drops a BOMBSHELL when she questions her unwavering commitment to the husband who, I’ll repeat, walked out on her unannounced. The third episode! I found that hard to relate to. But if you’re really a till death do us part type, I could see why you might empathize. This show is all about Finding Inner Strength, which is a thing that plenty of people like doing.
But what’s wrong with The Client List?
It’s really, really easy to dismiss The Client List straight away on account of it is all about handjobs and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage and her shockingly bad Texan accent for someone who is actually from Texas. But there are even more issues with this show—oh yes!
1. The Handjob Palladium’s madam is a Magical Negro named Georgia Cummings. 2. An absurd emphasis is still placed on getting a man as the road to happiness. 3. Sex work is evidently as a non-stop joyride of friends, laughs and therapeutic handjobs for unrealistically attractive dudes. 4. There is also a Fat Best Friend (Type A), but she hasn’t done much yet.
The groundswell against the lack of diversity (university?) on “Girls” has worked to the fullest extent that such things can. Dunham vowed to make changes in the second season. “The Client List” escapes criticism of that kind because it is already so naturally offensive on so many fronts that it would seem ridiculous to go all Mike Wallace on Jennifer Love Hewitt for portraying sex work as just a fun, hush-hush way to show off a hot new outfit. As it turns out, the greatest PR trick “The Client List” could ever pull was convincing the Internet that the show doesn’t exist.