By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
There are shows and stars that catch you by total happy surprise.
Even with the participation of acclaimed Hollywood producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, there wasn’t much reason to expect a lot from Lifetime’s new comic drama, Drop Dead Diva. Diva’s creator, Josh Berman, is best known for two quickly dismissed crime-show flops, Vanished and Killer Instinct. And the head diva, Brooke Elliott, a young woman with little more on her credits than a few theater and TV roles, is hardly known.
That’s about to change. Berman’s script, despite a slight lean toward preachy empowerment, is surprisingly engaging. And Elliott is a find, a full-blown instant star and delight who makes you wonder where she has been hiding herself.
Of course, that’s fitting, because Elliott is playing the kind of woman we tend to overlook: a bright fat girl with a pretty face but no fashion sense or self-confidence. Jane Bingum may be the best lawyer at her small firm, but the only person who pays her any mind is her loyal assistant — played in a nice comic turn by Margaret Cho.
Diva being a fantasy, Jane’s life changes when she dies and her body is occupied by the also recently dead Deb (Brooke D’Orsay), a model with looks and confidence to spare, but no intellect. Now Deb has Jane’s brain and body, but her own personality and memories.
That’s a fairly standard fantasy plot, but what Diva adds to the mix is our obsession with body image and the way we allow how we look to define who we are. Deb is shallow because she has never been expected to be anything else. Jane is a wallflower because she’s used to people ignoring her.
Clearly, these two could teach each other a few lessons. And one of the many wonderful things about Elliott’s performance is that they are two people. Her transitions — like scrunching up her eyes when “Jane” is thinking, then opening them in wide, thrilled shock when “Deb” realizes that “Jane” has had a thought — are clear without seeming forced. There’s pain and pleasure in the situation for both women, and Elliott makes each emotion ring true.
Some of the lessons are laid on a bit thick. But the cast, including April Bowlby as Deb’s best friend, Ben Feldman as her guardian angel, and Jackson Hurst as her boyfriend, sells them with a minimum of fuss and a light touch.
A show to die for? No, not quite. But Diva is a very good reason to turn to Lifetime on a summer Sunday night, and it has been some time since there was one of those.
And that really is the nicest surprise of all.