Sometimes Life Throws You Curves.
That’s the tagline for “Drop Dead Diva,” a Sony Pictures-produced TV series that began airing on Lifetime in July 2009.
They could have added a second tagline–“Sometimes, so does Lifetime”–because this show doesn’t quite fit the Lifetime formula. If you’re a woman, you already know that you’re the target audience for this network, which prominently features women and women’s issues in movies, sitcoms and TV dramas that have a “made for TV” feel about them. They’re usually pretty straightforward in narrative arc, they spotlight women as heroes and survivors who eventually triumph, and they do so with a liberal dose of cheerfulness, cheesiness, and melodrama, usually. This is a wholesome, warm hug sort of network, where the term “edgy” usually means a series that produces a lukewarm hug instead. But “Drop Dead Diva” is a little different.
The best way to describe it? How about “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Bishop’s Wife” meet “Ally McBeal” and “Samantha Who?”
Jane Bingum (Brooke Elliott) is a plus-sized workaholic lawyer who is fatally shot at the office when she gets in between her boss, Parker (Josh Stamberg), and the enraged husband of a woman Parker had been seeing. At about the same time, the vacant-headed Deb Dodson (Brooke D’Orsay, who appears in the pilot and in flashbacks in five other episodes) is killed while driving distractedly. When she goes to heaven, which is run like a gigantic mall with a check-in at the top of an escalator, she learns from an angel named Fred (Ben Feldman) that she’s a zero. She didn’t do anything bad, but she didn’t do anything good, either. But before he can pronounce judgment, Deb jumps the gun and pushes a “return” button on Fred’s computer keyboard.
The next thing you know, she’s waking up in the body of Jane, who’s lying on a slab as a team works to try to save her life. And then Fred ends up on earth as well, demoted to guardian angel (hers) because of the slip-up. It turns out that Deb has Jane’s size 16 body forever, but the good news is that it comes with Jane’s brain. So Deb’s soul is combined with Jane’s brain and body, but she has Deb’s memories. But wait, doesn’t memory reside in the temporal lobe? As Deb learns, week after week, about Jane and, as a result, about herself, we can’t help but be reminded of “Samantha Who?” and its charming amnesiac lead character trying to recover her life. Throw in a toned-down Margaret Cho as Teri, Jane’s assistant, an ambitious and catty attorney named Kim (Kate Levering) in the same firm, and a load of cases as quirky as we saw in “Ally MacBeal” (Jane even has these visions of people, like guys wearing rabbit ears, the way that Ally did), and you get a show that’s a little different from Lifetime’s usual fare.
The otherworldy elements aren’t as strong, however. It’s not as clear what Fred’s function is as it was with Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Dudley in “The Bishop’s Wife,” and it’s awfully coincidental that Deb’s fiancé, Grayson (Jackson Hurst), was just starting in the same law office as Jane works in. Still, “Drop Dead Diva” manages to entertain despite a corny and far-fetched premise and episodes that quickly fall within the constraints of the show’s formula. Each week, Jane learns something about Jane AND Deb, while each week her lack of a known past complicates things. And each week, viewers at home get constant reinforcement that Rubenesque women are beautiful.
Thirteen episodes are included on three single-sided discs and housed in two slim plastic keep cases, tucked inside a cardboard slipcase. Episodes and cast credits are printed on the inside covers, so you have to remove the disc to see them . . . and then there’s no one- or two-sentence annotation to jog your memory. Just the titles. Here’s the rundown:
1) “Pilot.” If you believe that every person’s individual idea of Heaven is what’s in store for them, then I suppose it’s appropriate that Heaven for Deb is a big mall in the sky with escalators and people dressed in white . . . no doubt looking for white sales.
2) “The ‘F’ Word.” Deb’s first big case as Jane is to represent a server who was fired because she gained weight. Meanwhile, a nasty divorce gets nastier when a man demands the return of property he gave to his wife: a kidney.
3) “Do Over.” Jane ends up in jail for contempt of court after her emotions get the best of her in a retrial whose history she has absolutely no recollection of, even though she tried the case. In the second plot thread, Kim and Grayson sue a psychiatrist on behalf of a woman claiming that in treating her husband for multiple personalities he left the wrong personality as the surviving one.
4) “The Chinese Wall.” Jane discovers that the only reason her parents stayed together was because of her, and now her ex-boyfriend Grayson is handling the case on behalf of her father. What’s left for Jane to do but represent her mother? Meanwhile, Kim represents a dog owner who paid a fortune to have his award-winner cloned but got a product that was inferior.
5) “Lost & Found.” While Jane represents a man wrongfully imprisoned and freed 10 years later, Kim and Grayson get involved with a case in which a man created a website for cheaters.
6) “Second Chances.” Jane defends a woman who is retried for a crime she was accused of committing 20 years ago; meanwhile, Grayson gets caught up with an elderly client who’s clearly not playing with a full deck.
7) “Magic Bullet.” Deb-as-Jane gets involved with a case that targets the Jillian Ford Diet Plan, not knowing that Jane actually did a commercial plugging the product. Oops. Meanwhile, Kim is sued for sexual harassment and Grayson tries to help.
8) “Crazy.” Jane defends a CEO from a board who wants his ouster after a near-death experience leaves him a little more “appreciative” of life and less the corporate killer he once was. Meanwhile, Kim and Grayson get involved in a tawdry case involving a cheating maid of honor and groom.
9) “The Dress.” Jane takes on a boutique for refusing to sell plus-sized clothing.
10) “Make Me a Match.” Judge Stone becomes the victim of matchmaking fraud, Fred returns, and Kim and Grayson deal with squabbling sister psychics.
11) “What If?” In another quirky case, Jane represents someone who thinks she was switched at birth. Meanwhile, Parker has to argue in court for the first time in a long time.
12) “Dead Model Walking.” A model accused of assaulting a sales person ends up in more trouble when her husband is found murdered. Meanwhile, Kim and Grayson meet a woman who refuses to sell her house because of the memories it holds.
13) “Grayson’s Anatomy.” Cute title, huh? Turns out that Grayson has been dreaming about Deb, though for a while he was ready to start a relationship with Kim.
Total episode runtime is 567 minutes, and “Drop Dead Diva” is not rated. An occasional “bitch” can be heard, but you even get that on daytime talk shows. For the most part “Drop Dead Diva” is a pretty wholesome show.
“Drop Dead Diva” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it’s about average for picture quality for current TV shows. Colors are bright, as you’d expect, and the bright reds don’t cause any problems. Skin tones are natural looking, and edge delineation and detail are fairly good for a DVD.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1, and a fairly robust 5.1 at that. There’s a surprising amount of ambient sound channeled through the rear speakers at times, and a fairly wide spread across the front speakers. Dialogue sounds clear and natural, and there’s no distortion. Subtitles are in English SDH and French.
There are no bonus features.
The premise couldn’t be any more far-fetched, but the actors sell their characters, and the infusion of “Ally McBeal” elements gives “Drop Dead Diva” a little more edge than the typical Lifetime series. It’s an entertaining show, despite the corniness and predictability.