[Contains insect particulates and SPOILERS!!]

Brooke Elliott as ‘Jane Bingum’ in “Drop Dead Diva” (S1)Working through the first season of Drop Dead Diva (2009), I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching two separate shows… one of which was far more successful than the other. The basic premise of the series sees a superficial wannabe-model named ‘Deb’ carelessly crashing her car into a fruit-truck and dying on impact, then going up to Heaven and using her Assessor Angel’s own computer to hijack the recently-vacated body of a super-smart, plus-sized lawyer named ‘Jane’, who took a bullet for her boss when a jealous husband confronted him about an affair he was having. Rather inconveniently, Deb-as-Jane still has access to her new vessel’s incredible intelligence and accumulated legal knowledge, but none of the woman’s memories, so she’s forced to feign amnesia while not-so-gracefully stepping into the larger woman’s shoes and attempting to make up for her wasted, selfish life by using Jane’s lawyer-powers to help people on a case-of-the-week basis. The biggest ongoing wrinkle in her new life is the fact that Deb’s gorgeous, grieving boyfriend ‘Grayson’ has just started working at Jane’s law firm, and misses her like mad! Eep! Got it? ‘Kay, so the two (occasionally overlapping) shows I want to compare can roughly be defined as “Deb’s Show” and “Jane’s Show”…

Brooke Elliott as ‘Jane Bingum’ and Kate Levering as ‘Kim Kaswell’ in “Drop Dead Diva” (S1)Jane’s Show is a romantic legal-dramedy about a 30-something, plus-size lawyer with a genius-level I.Q. named Jane Bingum (Brooke Elliott), who works her ass off to scale the ladder towards partnership, gladly taking on pro-bono cases to boost her profile (and make the world a better place), aided by her sassy assistant ‘Teri’ (Margaret Cho). A couple of her cases involve size-discrimination, and she frequently feuds with an ambitious rival named ‘Kim Kaswell’ (Kate Levering), who blatantly bullies Jane about her weight and perceived lack of fashion-sense, as they compete for the attention of a newly-hired hunk (Grayson, played by Jackson Hurst), and a fancy office on the top-floor. This is the show I like! A lot! With its hot-button-pushing cases, wacky cliental, inter-office clashes, and cheerfully-avaricious boss (‘Jay Parker’, played by Josh Stamberg), it really reminded me of golden-era Ally McBeal… albeit with a very different heroine at its helm (not just because of their silhouettes, but also because Jane is far more grounded, and confident around actual criminals than Ally ever was). Aside from the rom-com hijinks and engaging court-room battles (where cases are always won with ridiculous stunts and/or emotionally rousing closing arguments!), there’s also an admirable fat-friendly agenda, encouraging women with average or larger-than-average bodies to accept and love themselves. So, snaps for that.

Brooke D'Orsay as ‘Deb Dobkins’ in “Drop Dead Diva” (S1)Deb’s Show, on the other hand, is a sloppy mess of a supernatural-dramedy, in which an entitled aspiring model (Brooke D’Orsay) dies in a car crash while talking on her mobile, causing irreparable emotional harm to all of her loved ones, and then finagles her way back to Earth, in the body of another woman (Jane), whose life she then co-opts as her own. As punishment for letting this cosmic-cock-up happen on his watch, her Assessor Angel (‘Fred’, played by Ben Feldman) is demoted to Guardian Angel, and sent to work as the mail boy in Jane’s law firm. Although Fred warns Deb-as-Jane not to tell anyone about her partial-reincarnation, she immediately seeks consolation from her superficial-but-supportive bestie, ‘Stacy Barrett’ (April Bowlby), who also happens to be a (totes adorable) aspiring model/actress. While this isn’t a terrible set-up for a show as it goes, the writers are far too fond of springing “gotcha” surprises on the unsuspecting Deb-as-Jane, which could have easily been avoided if she’d made the slightest effort to research Jane’s life, or just flick through her old photo albums, for criminy’s sake! I didn’t mind the episode where she thought she was reuniting with a hunky highschool flame, only to discover that he was a gay fella that Jane had helped come out of the closet back in the day, because at least that told us more about what the real Jane was like… and the episode where Jane’s Mom (Faith Prince) turned up on the doorstep unannounced was forgivable, because it led to quite a sweet payoff when Deb-as-Jane reconciled with her new Mom… but when they pulled the same trick at the end of the final episode with Jane’s previously-unmentioned “husband”, I swore at the TV, because… c’mon! F*ck that. To keep falling back on the “surprise stranger from Jane’s past” schtick was just ridiculously lazy… especially considering how readily Deb-as-Jane researched the backgrounds of all her clients and cases, to prepare for court. Meanwhile, Fred was too busy creepily stalking her best-friend (ew!) to pass on a single useful shred of information about Jane’s life… when he wasn’t being randomly written in-and-out of the series, that is. Frankly, Deb’s Show was a shambles.

April Bowlby as ‘Stacy Barrett’ in “Drop Dead Diva” (S1)Er, I guess a third show would be “Deb-as-Jane’s Show”, with a seemingly-vapid celeb-and-image-obsessed ditz proving herself to be a surprisingly capable and knowledgeable litigator… which basically played like a TV adaptation of Legally Blonde. In fact, the episode where she helped out a famous fashion model (Brooke Burns) accused of murdering her husband, seemed like a pretty blatant rip-off of LB, right down to the part where Deb-as-Jane uncovers evidence which could exonerate her client, but also ruin the woman’s professional reputation at the same time, and is begged to bury it by the model herself. There are also traces of this third show in the final episode, where Stacy helped Grayson to defend an underwear model (Lina Esco) who was fired after it came out that she’d survived breast cancer. In fact, my ideal Deb-free version of the Jane Show (“Judging Jane”?) would include Stacy as the title character’s more frivolous colleague, taking the ‘Elle Woods’/’Ally McBeal’ role in their law-firm. Sadly, that show doesn’t exist… and I’m not sure Diva is an acceptable substitute, really. The gimmicky cliff-hanger ending and spoilers for future seasons that I’ve accidentally read on Wikipedia have pretty much quelled my compulsion to buy any more boxsets for now…

Margaret Cho as ‘Teri Lee’ and Rosie O'Donnell as ‘Judge Madeline Summers’ in “Drop Dead Diva” (S1)Nonetheless, the fortuitous casting of Cho, combined with Elliott’s admirable work ethic, attracted a number of big-name actresses in supporting roles, which I am duty-bound to list here: Rosie O’Donnell first appeared as Jane’s gruff-but-lovable mentor (and secret Scrabble-buddy) ‘Judge Madeline Summers’ in ep #1.3 (“Do Over”), where she oversaw a case-of-the-week, before returning in ep #1.10 (“Make Me a Match”) for a case of her own, as she set about suing an internet dating service run by Gina Torres! Or rather, a character played by her, I mean. The B-story of that (extremely starry) episode also involved Grayson mediating between two estranged psychic sisters, played by Liza Minnelli and Delta Burke! Kathy Najimy appeared in ep #1.7 (“The Magic Bullet”) as the mother of a previously overweight daughter (Alexa Nikolas) who lost a shedload of weight on a fancy diet plan, but then began to suffer from heart arrhythmia… so Mom decided to sue the diet plan’s designer and duplicitous spokesmodel, played by Teri Polo. Marla Sokoloff appeared in ep #1.8 (“Crazy”) as a thwarted bride-to-be, who discovered her fiance having sex with her maid-of-honour, and then called off their wedding, despite recklessly spending $10,000 on her dress! Nia Vardalos appeared in ep #1.11 (“What If?”) as a temp at the law-firm, who sought Jane’s help to prove that she’d been swapped with another baby shortly after her birth. And finally, Shirley Knight appeared in ep #1.12 (“Dead Model Walking”), as a kindly old lady who appealed to Grayson and Kim to save her beloved home from being bought up and demolished by a big property developer.

About Dee CrowSeer

A comic-book writer with an interest in philosophy, equality, and diversity. He/him.
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