Lifetime in 2007 picked up its first big dramatic hit in “Army Wives.” Last year, it imported its first successful reality show in “Project Runway” from Bravo. And the estrogen-laden network found its first hit comedy in “Drop Dead Diva,” which returns for a second season June 6.
The show is set in a law firm, akin to “Ally McBeal.” It has a “Heaven Can Wait” conceit: a model named Deb dies and gets placed in the body of an attorney. But lead character Jane Bingum isn’t Ally McBeal stick thin. Rather, she’s plus sized, especially by Hollywood standards.
Angela Stalcup, a 44-year-old Atlantan who writes a blog Curvy Life with a focus on body image, said when she saw promos for the show, she was livid: “I was concerned there’d be a vapid skinny girl punished for leading a bad life by being trapped in the body of a fat girl.”
But she said the show surprised her. “Jane is a fully realized character,” Stalcup said. “”The storyline integrating this inner skinny girl and outer fat girl resonates with me.”
The actress who plays Jane, Brooke Elliott, said it’s a challenge balancing two characters in one body. “You have to be incredibly particular,” she said. “You have to be focused where Jane is and where Deb is.” Elliott manages to pull it off with plausible realism.
While “Diva” doesn’t obsess over weight, the topic isn’t ignored. During the second season debut, rival attorney Kim Kaswell explains why she never has lunch with Jane: “I just assumed you preferred not to eat in front of other poeple.”
“Diva,” shot on lush sets in Peachtree City, averaged 2.8 million viewers its freshman year, drawing a coterie of big-name guest stars including Liza Minnelli, Paula Abdul and Rosie O’Donnell.
O’Donnell will be back for season two and so will Abdul, who pops in during a fantasy dance sequence in this Sunday’s episode set in a food court. She tells Jane, “Promise you stay true to who you are no matter what.” Others set to show up this year include Vivica A. Fox, Ricki Lake, and Cybill Shepherd.
“It’s not just stars for the sake of it,” said Sarah Polonsky, senior editor at BettyConfidential.com, which focuses on relationships, fashion and pop culture. “It’s not overkill. Making Paula Abdul a judge in her fantasies works because Jane is being judged all the time. And Rosie O’Donnell as a judge plays kind of a grown-up version of Jane.”
Show creator Josh Berman said his goal is to allow viewers to “laugh and cry in the same scene, certainly the same episode. There aren’t many shows like that on the air.”
Here’s some more from Berman, who lives in Los Angeles but comes by Peachtree City a few times a year. “Everyone is doing well,” he said. “I love being on the set. I wish I could spend more time out there.”
A former lawyer, Berman said he wants Jane to be a “different kind of lawyer,” one who doesn’t necessarily adhere to the system but believes in justice. That’s why she broke confidentiality and whistle blew on a corrupt client last year and is set to be disbarred.
“It feels incredible to be embraced by our fans,” he said. “It’s really exciting to get all these questions about how her husband is.” [He popped up unexpectedly on the finale last year.] “It’s funny. Jane started last season in Deb’s body thinking she had nothing. Now she’s got a soulmate in Grayson, a husband and a boyfriend in Tony.” An embarrassment of riches, so to speak.
“I feel like we’ve proven ourselves in season one,” Berman said. “The sky’s the limit in season two.”
About guest stars: he said actors are now approaching the show directly. (Last year, Berman and the others would seek out certain names.). “Rather than look at it as stunting but finding the best actors for the best parts,” he said. “Cybill Shepherd, for instance, will play the Queen of Mean. She’s an amazing actress and has such great presence. It works beautifully for her. It really enhances the show to have such quality actors.”
On Brooke: “I’m so proud of her. She’s such a sweet person. She works so hard. We spent many hours talking about the characters. She knows this character. She loves the character so much. To do it justice, she has to throw herself into it.”
For Jane’s character season two: “It’s all about two steps forward, one step back. I think every time she makes some progress in some areas of her life, there’s something that pops up that surprises her as she learns more about Jane.” Berman said a big episode midway season two will be Deb discovering old Jane had an affair with married man. “It comes as a huge surprise for Deb, who had placed Jane on such a pedestal,” he said.
And take that, “Glee:” There’s a “Drop Dead Diva” soundtrack out as well featuring Brooke Elliott, Margaret Cho, Ben Feldman, Scott Starrett, Confetti, Alana D, Becca Jones, Platinum Pied Pipers, Lil’ Wendy, Madi Diaz, Dri, Katie Herzig, Malbec and Joshua Morrison.
For more, check out the AJC Radio and TV Talk blog at http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/