When I started the second season premiere of Drop Dead Diva, I told a friend that I was watching it. "How is it?" he asked, and I responded the only way I knew how: "Surprisingly not terrible!" Because it is. Virtually everything the show does seems designed to be tooth-grindingly irritating, yet it saves almost all of this at the last minute. How does it do this? I know I'm supposed to tell you, but I don't quite understand how myself. I just know that I spent much of the episode I watched groaning at how stupid everything was, only to turn around at the end and say, "Hey, that was really well-handled." There's something about the show that's really appealing, even as I know that it's not for me.
That sounds a little ridiculous, actually. I can't imagine a universe where a show about a model who dies and is reborn as an overweight lawyer would be a show I would await with breathless anticipation. The premise, on its face, is sort of like The Love-Matic Grampa, and it would require absolutely perfect execution to work. It is possible for a show that is aimed at an audience that doesn't include me to worm its way past my defenses and become one of my favorites - Gilmore Girls springs readily to mind - but having to overcome that much of a problem at the start is a big mountain to climb. I'm not saying this as a way to brag about my superior taste or anything; instead, I'm suggesting that there are some things that just aren't for me or aren't aimed at me. But I hope I can notice when they're well-executed examples of the genre.
I wouldn't say that Drop Dead Diva is a Gilmore Girls or Greek-style show for me, where the execution is so good that my objections to the material are swept away. But it's damn close, and, again, that's surprising for a show with such a weird and borderline offensive premise. In general, I kind of hate anything that suggests that a pretty girl (or attractive man) just needs to learn a lesson about being a better person by living the life of someone less attractive. Then, at the end of the movie or story, they can go back to their old life and be both beautiful AND unbearably empathetic. There's something weirdly icky about it, honestly. I mean, yeah, lots of us judge people on their appearance every day, but Hollywood's weird obsessions with beauty (and with proving that it doesn't have a weird obsession with beauty by tossing shows like this one out there) drive me a little nuts.
But, OK, Drop Dead Diva starts out from a pretty good place. Our lead, Jane, played by the winning Brooke Elliott, can't go back to her old life as a model. The old her is dead, the victim of a car crash, and the life of Jane is the only one that she has left. She's gotta make this one work or … well, the stakes are a little unclear, but she certainly won't be happy about what happens. So far, so good. The show also has a fun sense of just how exciting it is to Jane that she's now smart, that there was always a part of her that wanted to be more intelligent than the girl she was before. There's only so much of this the show can do - Jane giggling and clapping when she realized she knew Shakespeare in tonight's episode probably should have been the last time the show ever pulls this gambit out - but it does work, more or less.
I don't think it's possible to overstate just how much Elliott holds this show together. The scripts are generally well-written (though there's a tendency to lean too heavily on cutesy girl talk of the sorts that guys often think women indulge in all of the time), and the lawyer stuff can be enjoyable, but basically nothing here works without the right woman at the show's center. Elliott handles the show's abrupt tonal shifts about as well as anyone could, and she sells everything from her growing sense that Jane's life had its problems to her delight at discovering some of the new possibilities that have been opened up to her very well. In particular, she nails the romantic side of the romantic comedy equation, her chemistry with guest star David Denman (yeah, Roy from The Office) nicely understated and her slow burn at Jane's long-lost, secret husband resurfacing to ask for a divorce built so subtly that I didn't even realize it was going to boil over until it did. (In this respect, she was helped by creator Josh Berman's script, which pulled off some good misdirection.) Hell, she even makes dancing with Paula Abdul in a mall food court seem like the most natural thing in the world, and I laughed every time she called her "Judge Paula Abdul."
But the other thing that makes the show work is that it has a certain seriousness at its core. The reason Jane's life so often seems to suck is because she was unable to be the kind of person she needed to be, something that the new Jane is able to see clearly. There's a central appeal to the "becoming another person" narrative that extends beyond the mere thought that it would be fun to try on someone else's life for a while. There's also the sense that if we could step out of our life and into someone else's, we might gain enough perspective on both to turn both lives around and make them something good. When Jane stands up for herself at the end of the premiere, telling her husband exactly how poorly he's treated her over the years, it's treated as a big moment because it is one. It's a moment when transformation is less about having another form and more about taking charge of your real life. At its best, Drop Dead Diva is full of those moments.
Talking people at an Internet pop culture site where many of the readers are young men into watching a show like Drop Dead Diva is going to be hard. The best I can really say, I think, is that if your girlfriend or wife wants to watch it, there are worse ways to kill time until Breaking Bad. But that rather undersells the show, which is one that I probably won't be adding to the regular rotation but is one that is charming nonetheless. There are stupid things here - I'm not sure the guardian angel character really works, though the actor playing him is clearly having a good time - and there's lots of strained girl talk. But there's also a really bold center, a sense of what it's like to find yourself, very gradually, in a whole other life.
- I hate the ways that shows like this always rely on the new person wanting to get back with their old lover. I don't think Drop Dead Diva pulls this trick off either.
- I do like the chemistry between Elliott and April Bowlby, who are completely believable as friends and roommates.
- One thing I appreciate about the show is the fact that the legal cases - while afterthoughts - are usually woven in pretty cleverly. You get a full, mostly developed story, and that can be hard to do on a quirky show like this.