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'Drop Dead Diva' mixes brains and beauty

A petite would-be model and a full-figured lawyer swap spirits in the new Lifetime series.

July 10, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

You could think of Lifetime's new dramedy, "Drop Dead Diva," as a summer fable of sorts.

It's the story of Deb, a beautiful wannabe model who is killed in a car accident at the same time as Jane, a full-figured lawyer, is shot by her jilted husband. Then, after some confusion at the gates of Heaven, Deb's spirit winds up in Jane's body, sentenced to live a very different kind of life back on Earth.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
'Drop Dead Diva': An article in the July 10 Calendar section about the Lifetime TV series "Drop Dead Diva" said the plot involved a lawyer named Jane who was shot by her jilted husband. In fact, the man who shot Jane was a client's husband.

It's a lesson in societal and personal expectations, but, perhaps, the most unexpected element of the series is the TV scribe who created it -- Josh Berman, who has worked as an executive producer on "CSI" and "Bones" -- and the source of his inspiration for his lead character.

"Everyone is surprised that this is my show because I think you get pegged in life that you're only good at one thing," Berman said. "And that's symbolic of the series too because everyone expects something out of Jane and now they don't ever get what they expect from her with Deb's soul inside of her. Because of the way you look, your history, the patterns in your life, the world expects the same things in the future as they got in the past, and this show shows that you can change on a dime and the world's going to have to deal with it."

"Drop Dead Diva" premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m. and stars Brooke Ellliott, a Broadway stage actress ("Wicked" and "Taboo"), as Jane Bingum, a plus-sized brilliant attorney who sometimes is outshone by her attractive colleagues and friends. Brooke D' Orsay ("How I Met Your Mother") plays the vapid, gorgeous Deb.

"I thought this would be a fantastic vehicle to help dispel the myth that beauty comes in one specific package," Elliott said. "And I thought it would be a tremendous opportunity to give and get a different view on TV that we don't normally get. Jane is struggling with what to do with this new life and this new person and this new body. I feel like women struggle so much. They're constantly told they're not good enough, and that's a complete fallacy."

It was Berman's maternal grandmother who mastered the fight between brains and beauty and taught him to believe that he could accomplish anything, he said. A Holocaust survivor, Debra Stein came to the United States by herself at age 12 and "had a spirit that was unstoppable," he said of his grandmother who passed away 10 years ago.

"I named the skinny model after her to kind of honor her," Berman said. "My grandmother was 4-10 and she would describe herself as 'pleasantly plump,' but that would be the nice way of putting it. She was a very large small woman, if that makes any sense. She was just this little punchy old woman who believed that she could do anything and I could do anything.

"I always thought she would make a great central character," he added. "But I didn't know how to develop that character until I happened upon the idea of putting someone else's spirit in that body because when you looked at her, you didn't expect the soul inside."

"Drop Dead Diva" also stars Margaret Cho as Jane's assistant and features guest stars including Paula Abdul, Liza Minnelli, Delta Burke, Rosie O'Donnell, Kathy Najimy, Teri Polo, Kelly Gould, Sharon Lawrence and Tim Gunn.

"The reason I believe we're getting these guest stars is because the show resonates with everyone," Berman said. "All of us have felt like outsiders at some point in our lives whether because of the way we look or we're not as smart or not as rich. This is what this show is. It's about a woman who always fit in and now she doesn't. And she's learning that not fitting in is not necessarily a bad thing. The notion that people actually respect her for her brains is absolutely exhilarating for this character who has always been dismissed intellectually."

Executive producers Craig Zaden and Neil Meron ("Hairspray") conducted a national casting search and helped to find Elliott for the lead role. The prospect of playing two characters in one most excited Elliott about the part.

"The range of acting that I'm provided, that I get to do, from comedy to drama, is amazing," she said. "The fact that there are so many funny moments and so many that tug at your heartstrings, it's a complete work and I love how well-rounded it is. But then getting to be in a show with such a beautiful message, that was hard to pass up."

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maria.elena.fernandez

@latimes.com

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