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"Drop Dead Diva" Review: What's in a Name?

By Sarah Carlson | TV | August 26, 2011 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | August 26, 2011 |

For a show all about perception, identity and stereotypes, it’s unfortunate the biggest obstacle TV’s “Drop Dead Diva” faces is its name. That and the fact it airs on Lifetime. But its premise is what had me wary when it premiered in 2009: A shallow aspiring model dies and her soul soon ends up in the body of a recently deceased plus-sized lawyer. I tuned in sure I’d be offended and ready to criticize. But what could have been an insulting skinny-girl-becomes-fat saga instead has taken a sweeter route. “Diva” has stuck around for three seasons now, its third ending soon, building an audience and changing skeptical viewers’ minds — mine included — about just what type of show it is. And it’s a cute one.

When the model, Deb Dobkins (Brooke D’Orsay), is killed in a car accident, she causes trouble in Heaven, giving grief to her guardian angel Fred (Ben Feldman), and pushes a button that sends her back to Earth — only as someone else. Jane Bingum (Brooke Elliott), a dowdy, plus-sized lawyer, had taken a bullet for her boss and died on the operating table until Deb took over her body. Now, the new Jane has her own smarts but Deb’s memories and personality — think Sam Beckett in “Quantum Leap,” only he never switches who he’s inhabiting. The change, of course, is a shock for the new Jane, who’d rather have her old body and life back with her fiance, Grayson Kent (Jackson Hurst). He’s also a lawyer and lands a job at Jane’s firm led by J. Parker (Josh Stamberg), and their relationship is the more interesting of the series. Because Jane is essentially Deb — she has her soul, after all. But she doesn’t look like Deb, therefore Grayson isn’t romantically interested in her. They’re just good friends. It’s painful, but it’s honest. Jane has to keep her secret, although Fred is sent to Earth to deal with her and she is able to tell Deb’s best friend, Stacy Barrett (April Bowlby), another model but one whose sweetness makes up for her cluelessness. Empowerment is the main lesson as Jane, still smart and curvy but now with confidence and a bubblier personality, navigates her new life.

Elliott easily carries the show. She gives Jane an earnest joyfulness that is refreshing among female leads. She can be silly, but she’s not neurotic or severely troubled. And she’s beautiful inside and out, sort of a brunette Elle Woods. The cases Jane handles generally carry a power-to-the-underdog theme — a recent episode dealing with lesbian teens wanting to go to prom was a standout — though showrunner Josh Berman infuses his series with enough whimsy to keep it away from the procedural trap. It succeeds where shows such as “Glee” are failing by delivering characters viewers can care about, believable conflict and messages that aren’t sermons. Plus the occasional song-and-dance dream sequence never hurts.

The biggest complaint you can make about “Drop Dead Diva” is not necessarily about the show itself but that it is one example of several shows where plus-sized (and in America, that’s average) characters are only featured because their weight is part of the plot. Look at actress Melissa McCarthy. She stole every scene she was in in Bridesmaids and was a favorite on “Gilmore Girls,” and I assume her size was not the reason she was cast in either. But her current starring vehicle is “Mike & Molly,” about a couple who meet at a weight loss class. Maybe that show does transcend its initial theme, as “Drop Dead Diva” certainly has, but until plus-sized actors and actresses are cast for their talent, not their weight, the messages of empowerment on select shows will only go so far.

For now, we’ve got Jane and a show with an unbelievable amount of guest stars, from Kathy Griffin to Wanda Sykes to Liza Minnelli. And Jane has plenty of conflict in her life, with the old Jane’s past occasionally popping up and presenting new obstacles and one of the firm’s other lawyers, Kim Kaswell (Kate Levering), and Jane’s assistant, Teri Lee (Margaret Cho), in the drama mix. Plus, Jane is busy dating — numerous men, in fact. Because really, what’s not to like about her?

“Drop Dead Diva” airs Sundays at 9/8C on Lifetime.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.