By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
Published: July 9, 2009
Someone heard the old line about a thin woman trapped in a fat woman’s body and took it literally. In “Drop Dead Diva,” a Lifetime series that begins on Sunday, an aspiring model and airhead named Deb (Brooke D’Orsay) dies in a car crash and is transported — through a bungled act of divine intervention — to the body of a recently deceased lawyer, Jane (Brooke Elliott), who is smart, fat and frumpy.
The trading-places formula is put to use here in a weight-conscious comedy, a “Freaky Friday” mind-body exchange that measures the eternal contest between brains and beauty by the pound.
Deb, trapped in a Lane Bryant physique, doesn’t lose her own shallow, bubbly personality. When Deb awakens in a hospital bed and discovers that her once-taut stomach is now a pillowy protrusion of flab, she shrieks at her guardian angel, “You sent me to hell?” But she also assumes Jane’s high-powered brain and legal expertise. Deb discovers that while she now craves doughnuts and cheese dip, her mind also savors a complicated and compelling legal case. Basically she thinks like Elle in “Legally Blonde,” only she looks like Camryn Manheim on “The Practice.”
And while the presumption that a woman can be either brainy or beautiful, or in this case, good or thin, but not both, is a bit primitive, the series has humor and charm beneath its facile message, in large part (no disrespect intended) to a subtle, winning performance by Ms. Elliott.
It’s gotten harder than ever to find an imperfect heroine in a series who is actually flawed. More than ever these days, television suffers from casting dysmorphia; it repeatedly takes a slovenly, gluttonous, character and casts an exquisitely groomed, Pilates-toned actress in the part.
One of the running jokes of both “30 Rock” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” is that the characters played by Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are disarmingly sloppy, out of shape and addicted to junk food — and wine, in the case of Ms. Louis-Dreyfus. It’s a strain when both actresses are so petite, pretty and fit.
Debra Messing may have started the trompe l’oeil trend in “Will & Grace,” since she too was a whippet-thin actress playing a slovenly overeater. But the hypocrisy grows ever more insulting — a cognitive diss. Even TNT, which takes pride in badly behaved heroines — a slatternly sot on “Saving Grace,” a sweetsaholic on “The Closer” — assigns those roles to improbably slender, well-preserved actresses like Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick.
And when a comedy does feature a female lead who is not conventionally pretty, that becomes the raison d’être of the series, as in “Ugly Betty.”
Network executives have concluded, perhaps not unreasonably, that audiences don’t really want television characters that are too true to life. “Roseanne” was a huge hit and lasted nine years, but it didn’t spark a stampede for plus-size actresses. Neither did “Less Than Perfect,” which starred a larger-than-usual actress, Sara Rue, and a venti-size sidekick, Sherri Shepherd. Ms. Manheim won Emmys on “The Practice” and “The Ghost Whisperer,” without inspiring many imitators.
Reality shows, on the other hand, feast on fat people. “The Biggest Loser” proved there was an appetite for weight-loss competitions, and now imitations abound. Oxygen has the latest: “Dance Your Ass Off,” in which chubby contestants shed weight by dancing. (Their scores are based on both their footwork and how many pounds they’ve lost.) This month Fox will present a “Bachelor”-like dating reality show for ordinary, heavyset people called “More to Love”; there is no weight loss requirement to winning a rose.
About two-thirds of Americans are overweight, many of them dangerously so. But television reflects a funhouse mirror image of society; sitcoms and dramas hold out impossibly narrow standards of beauty, while reality shows seek out and exploit the more grotesque displays of obesity.
“Drop Dead Diva” owes a lot to “Legally Blonde.” Deb, like Elle, even has a signature strut, which she calls the “booty bounce” (“shoulders back, show the rack”) and demonstrates to buck up discouraged female friends. But Ms. Elliott has a harder task than Reese Witherspoon: She has to merge two antithetical personalities without blurring the distinctions. Jane was a smarter, better person than Deb, but she was also insecure and depressed. Deb, once she settles into her legal briefs and sensible shoes, brings a dash of flirty confidence and “Born Yesterday” ingenuity to her caseload.
In the most implausible of comic mixups Ms. Elliott is convincing, and even affecting, at every turn.
Lifetime is bold to cast an actress who is hefty, without the aid of a fat suit like Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shallow Hal,” and plays a woman who is not likely to slim down magically just in time to find Mr. Right. That may be one reason so many better-known television stars signed on for small parts or walk-on appearances, from Margaret Cho, who plays Jane’s assistant, to guest stars like Rosie O’Donnell, Tim Gunn and Elliot Gould.
“Drop Dead Diva” isn’t a public-service message, it’s a lighthearted romantic comedy on Lifetime. Yet for all the farce it is grounded in reality.