By MARY McNAMARA, Television Critic
The press material for Lifetime’s new comedy “Drop Dead Diva” contains a lot of accolades from “women’s groups” in which terms like “role model” and “grab your girlfriends” appear with alarming frequency — as if the publicity department were bracing critics for a show that should be viewed through a political or genre framework instead of simply as, you know, a television show anyone might enjoy. (The term “role model” especially tolls in a critic’s ear with as much anticipatory delight as Poe’s funeral iron bells.)
None of which was necessary, as “Drop Dead Diva” is a lot of fun to watch, with the added bonus of introducing TV audiences to Brooke Elliott, a stage actress with fabulous comic timing and enormous dramatic flexibility.
Oh, and she weighs a bit more than 100 pounds, which may explain all that “women’s group” nonsense.
Created by Josh Berman, who has written for “CSI” and “Bones,” “Drop Dead Diva” answers the age old question: What would happen if a dippy but beautiful woman woke up one morning with a brilliant mind but a dumpy body? OK, maybe it’s not an age-old question, but it certainly is an interesting twist on the rather worn pretty-and-witless-meets-schlubby-and-smart-narrative that fuels so much of chick lit.
All this and heaven too. “Drop Dead Diva” opens with two very different women about to meet their doom. Jane (Elliott) is a driven drudge of a lawyer who wears brooches and finds what little joy she experiences in work and carbs. Lots of carbs.
Deb, played by Brooke D’Orsay, meanwhile, is a tight-bodied empty-headed model-actress (guess which one is blond; go ahead, guess) on her way to audition for a job Vanna White made famous.
Both are tragically killed, and we meet up with Deb as she enters the Great Sorting Room in the Sky, where Fred (Ben Feldman), her celestial concierge, informs her that though she has never done an evil deed, she has neither done a good one, making her his first “zero, zero.” Stung, she manages to get sent back to Earth, but via the tragically imperfect body of Jane.
With a setup like this, it would be very easy to fall into a veritable showcase of sexism — How dumb was Deb? How fat is Jane? — but Berman produces a deft juggling trick of heart and humor, balancing Deb’s shallowness with some solid common sense and Jane’s inadequate self-esteem with kindness and legal brilliance.
Almost impossibly, Elliott manages to embody both personalities in a way that, far from some tedious “Inside the Actor’s Studio” lesson in character assimilation, is just delightful to watch. She is aided in this wacky scenario by a serviceable if predictable diagnosis of semi-amnesia and, more important, by Margaret Cho as Jane’s trusty assistant, Teri, and April Bowlby as Deb’s equally shallow but still loyal best friend, Stacy. Both hit all the necessary double-takes and are-you-crazy moments with just the right dramatic frothiness and keep things tethered, if loosely, to the recognizable world.
There’s a bunch of cute guys, of course: Fred has been demoted to guardian angel and gets a job at Jane’s firm so he can keep tabs on his runaway soul. Deb had a boyfriend, Grayson (Jackson Hurst), who has also, as luck and narrative need would have it, just joined the staff (the economic slowdown has not, apparently, hit this portion of Los Angeles).
Despite Deb’s self-centered zero, zero status, Grayson appears to be a peach of a guy, devastated by his girlfriend’s death, but Deb is convinced he wouldn’t look at her twice now that she’s Jane. There’s a scheming colleague, Kim (Kate Levering), a possibly sleazy boss (Josh Stamberg) and a host of upcoming guest stars (Rosie O’Donnell, Paula Abdul). But mostly there’s just Jane, a one-woman, two-woman show, trying to figure out how to accessorize her new life, which comes complete with sugar cravings and a job that requires she think about someone besides herself for two minutes.
If you were of a mind, you could concentrate on all the rather obvious plot devices and general silliness — a female client transformed by a single make-over — and pick “Drop Dead Diva” to death. But why?
Certainly, the show falls more in the fun category than the brilliant, and it’s not going to change television as we know it, but with any luck, it will remind us not to take everything, including television shows, so darn seriously. There is joy to be had in a doughnut, beauty can radiate from a face not made entirely of cheekbones and Botox, but that’s not the point. Deb’s zero, zero has nothing to do with looks but with deeds, and in its own light-hearted and sentimental way, that is what “Drop Dead Diva” makes clear. Not so much that beauty (yawn) comes from within, but that you actually have to do something to put it there.
On second thought, it may indeed change television as we know it.