The Drama Club: Is ‘Drop Dead Diva’ The Strangest Show on TV?

by | June 10, 2010 at 3:39 PM | The Drama Club

Janes Dances with Paula Abdul (Bob Mahoney/Lifetime Television)

Janes Dances with Paula Abdul (Bob Mahoney/Lifetime Television)

There are some shows that have a clearly defined concept that obviously made network executives salivate: an action series that takes place over 24 hours,  a team of forensic investors use science to solve crimes. Then there are the shows with underlying concepts odd enough that it’s a miracle they ever got on the air.  Lifetime’s ‘Drop Dead Diva‘ belongs to this category.  If it were on any other network, it would be considered a strange and innovative hybrid, not dismissed as entertainment for soccer Moms.   The show is a hodge podge of disparate elements: a legal procedural, a body switching saga, with the occasional musical number and an exploration of body image issues.  That’s as bizarre as anything Ryan Murphy could dream up.  Yet, the drama about a superficial model who, in a ‘Heaven Can Wait‘ scenario finds herself reincarnated in the body of a plus sized lawyer named Jane (Brooke Elliot)  is positioned as squarely in the mainstream.   It should not work, but it is an utterly charming and surprisingly sophisticated show that is winning over plenty of viewers who would ordinarily only watch Lifetime to mock their women in jeopardy movies.

See Jane Confide in Best Friend Stacy:

The second season premiere featured a musical dream sequence involving lawyer Jane, dressed in a hot dog on a stick uniform singing the Eurythmics Would I Lie to You in a mall food court with a judge played by Paula Abdul, the arrival of Jane’s long lost husbannd, a disbarment hearing, a case involving a sick little girl designed to tug at the heartstrings, a prodigal guardian angel, and some jokes about Spanx.  That’s one random hour. The writers are definitely graduates of the ‘Ally McBeal ‘school of law, as the jurisprudence revolves around the notions of justice and being a good person rather than the actual practice of law. The storyline about the ex-husband, played  by Devon Gummersal, who will never stop being ‘My So Called Life’s’ Brian Krakow, resolves rather neatly: it turned out she married him so he could get on her health insurance, which, as another lawyer points out, makes her technically guilty of legal fraud. Though since it seems they really were romantically involved, it seems unclear where the fraud was.

The trick of the show is that the model Deb, who has none of Jane’s memories but all of her legal skills, has learned to take real pleasure in being smart instead of just a pretty face.  The conceit is that she has no memories of Jane’s experiences, but she has retained her intellectual knowledge.  In the season premiere she was tickled to discover that she could quote Shakespeare. She uses the social and fashion skills she gained in her life as a model to give Jane a makeover that has nothing to do with her appearance.  Jane has juggled several hot love interests. Deb the model sees A-list guys as her birthright, and because she approaches them that way, that’s the way they see her.  Her ultimate quest to get back together with her ex-boyfriend Grayson (Jackson Hurst), who conveniently works at the law firm, while looking like Jane is soapy and poignant, and totally plausible given who Jane has become. It’s a clever twist on the stereotypes of lonely big women that television usually dishes out.  Jane’s problem, when she was Jane, was a lack of self-confidence, not her weight.  As ex-husband Krakow told her, “You never used to wear pink lipstick before.”  The old Jane took herself out of the game, believing that she couldn’t win.

It’s difficult for a show to blend the supernatural and the real.  It begs questions like why guardian angel Fred can’t do anything to help the girl with the bad heart.  But this is not a show aimed at genre fans.  To me, the singing sequences and the aggressive stunt casting which has included everyone from Tim Gunn to Rosie O’Donnell, are the least interesting aspects of the show.  It’s the character dynamics, from Jane’s relationship with her undermining workplace rival Kim to her interactions with people who judge her for her weight, that make the show interesting.  In this Sunday’s episode, Jane helps an amnesiac who is trying to regain custody of his child, guardian angel Fred gets a job at the law firm and Grayson remembers the anniversary of Deb’s death.  It sound nice and weird.

Watch a clip from the Season Premiere: