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The Client List’s Weirdly Wholesome Hand Jobs

Jennifer Love Hewitt gingerly holds a bottle of lotion. She squirts a few quick pumps into her hands, sort of aggressively, and rubs her palms. She bats her eyelashes, dips her chin, leans forward, and sort of shrug-squeezes her breasts together. She purrs at the man lying face-up on the massage table. Then she starts gently, playfully rubbing ... his calves. Ooooooh.

No cold showers necessary. The Client List is the world's wholesomest show about sex work. And it's really, really popular: Almost 3 million people watched Sunday's episode, more than twice as many as watched the premiere of Girls. (Granted, far more people have Lifetime than HBO, but still.) Last week's episode was more popular than Mad Men, too. The audience is overwhelmingly female, and it skews slightly older than maybe you'd guess, pulling in more viewers 25 to 54 than 18 to 49. Hewitt plays Riley Parks, a Texas mom whose husband just left her with a pile of debt and two kids to take care of. She runs into one of her old pals from massage school, and next thing you know, she's giving hand jobs to extremely attractive and clean-looking men, in an extremely safe environment. She seems pretty comfortable turning to jay-for-pay and doesn't appear to be under coercion, nor does her boss (Loretta Devine) seem to be exploiting anyone. Her co-workers seem to be having the times of their lives.

On a night of TV that's pretty inundated with sex — Game of Thrones, Girls, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Desperate HousewivesThe Client List stands out for being remarkably, almost sadly, unerotic. Riley winds up helping everyone she ... helps. She's just so darn caring, she can't not listen to her clients as she manually brings them to orgasm. She just gets attached to them and wants them to be happy! She really connects with men, which is why she likes the lingerie they ask her to wear. It's not degrading, it's fun. And therapeutic, even.

Either way, it isn't very sexy. Do some women fantasize about being naughty, glamorous courtesans whom men would throw thousands at, and maybe get off a little on the complex power dynamic? Yeah, probably. But far, far fewer fantasize about being the South East Texas Queen of Emotionally Magical Handy Jays, lamely squeezing oil onto men's chests — oil that glistens in the flickering light of 38 scented candles, provided to you by your place of work, a massage parlor called the Rub.

The Client List is pretty dumb, which is fine. Lots of shows are dumb. But couldn't it at least be hot? All this prancing around in bustiers, the constant blather about the state of Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts (big? or very big?), the ostensibly provocative ads — who is that for? Who is that scandalizing? What the show actually is is not any kind of steamy drama — it's just a plain old get-her-groove-back soap. (It's not paired with Army Wives for nothing.) If it were a little smarter, it could easily be on USA as another fish-out-of-water character show, what with its crazy contrast between work and home, its lovelorn lead, its almost ridiculous parent figure (here, Cybil Shepherd). The show is about as sexually tantalizing as a Pottery Barn, though — and at least there, the lotion is in a fancy-looking bottle.

Photo: Michael Desmond Photography/Lifetime