thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Divas, Lawyers, and Why “Drop Dead Diva” is the Best Summer Show You Are Not Watching

In body politics, Drop Dead Diva, Lifetime on June 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Recently, Jennifer Lynn Jones and Phoebe B. got together over a Google Doc to discuss one of their favorite summer shows, Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva (DDD). Read on for thoughts on why DDD is the most awesome, the recent season, and much more!

Jane, KK as Nikki , and Stacy (courtesy of Lifetime)

What made you start watching the show? Why do you keep watching it?

Phoebe B: Honestly I can’t quite remember what made me start watching it, but I am SO glad that I did. It is perhaps one of my favorite Summer shows on TV. I keep watching it for a variety of reasons but I think one of the things I like most is Jane (and Brooke Elliot who plays her is so amazing). She is such a badass lawyer and such a great friend (I kind of wish we were friends). But perhaps most importantly, in a TV landscape that is often unkind to women as we’ve seen in Lena Dunham’s recent treatment, DDD celebrates women of all shapes and sizes.

Jennifer: I started watching it because it seemed like it might have some connection to my dissertation, which is on fat stars. I remember it started in the summer of 2009, right around the same time as Fox’s reality dating competition More to Love, so that moment seemed to present a potential zeitgeist for larger-sized characters sans makeovers on television. At first I’d be hard-pressed to say I was a fan of either, but DDD definitely won me over by the end of the first season. I think the hardest part for me to swallow was that the most winning characteristics of Jane’s personality seem to come from Deb, so that the traits of the “thin model” seemed to remain the most significant parts of the character. Over the next few seasons though, it felt like the specter of Deb sort of “thinned out” in the character, and what remained was Jane as this unique, large, lovely character, who yes, I would also very much like to be or know in real life!

How would you describe it to people who haven’t seen it?

Phoebe B: Deb, a super skinny model dies on her way to a Price is Right audition, goes to Heaven’s processing center, pushes the return button, and finds herself back on earth in the body of Jane, a plus size braniac lawyer. Deb, now Jane, has to learn to live in and love her body while also learning how to be a lawyer and grieve the loss of her fiance. There are love triangles, there are musical numbers, and fabulous guest judges. Jane, as she struggles with Deb and learns to navigate her new life, becomes a truly compassionate, complicated, and delightful character.

Jennifer: Yes, that exactly! I often call it an updated version of Ally McBeal, with Jane being a combination of Legally Blond’s Elle Woods and The Practice’s Ellenor Frutt.

Phoebe B: Oh my goodness, that’s PERFECT. Jane’s hair flip often reminds me of Elle.

Jennifer: Yep, that flip from this week is definitely an Elle trait, as well as the “toe tap booty bounce” from the first episode.

The show often covers topics on gender, beauty, and body size, but how successfully do you think it deals with other areas of difference, like race and sexuality?

Phoebe B: I think this is such a great question. I think the show does a really interesting job dealing with topics on gender, beauty, and body size but I do think it lacks racial and sexual diversity. That said, I think Margaret Cho’s character, Teri, and I love her relationship with Jane. Also, I think it is cool that Cho is in this particular show as her last foray into television ended when she was forced to lose weight and change her body type. What do you think, JJ?

Jennifer: I agree. The show occasionally takes on other kinds of difference in its cases, like the season two episode with Teri’s cousin nearly being deported and the season three episode with a high school ban on same-sex prom dates, but those are occasional at best and not commonly connected to the regular cast. The show often takes a kind of colorblind approach to dealing with characters and their issues, including in terms of interracial relationships. This goes for Teri and some of her hunks, as well as some past cases and the current drama surrounding lead partner Parker (Josh Stamberg) and his ex-girlfriend and mother to his son, Elisa (Brandy). While this may seem like a progressive approach, it also ignores and misses the opportunity to address more issues that are as important as the ones focused on beauty and body size that it handles so well. And hello, the showrunner is a gay man, Josh Berman, so I’d love some more storylines focused on queer characters and issues. For example, I’ve been thinking that since Jane’s first angel Fred (Ben Feldman) fell in love with her best friend Stacy (April Bowlby), why can’t her new angel Luke (Carter McIntyre) fall in love with someone in the office, like Parker?

Phoebe B: I definitely agree that the show explores race and sexuality on an episode by episode basis. Teri and Elisa are definitely good examples of how DDD does this and I do love the episode where we meet Teri’s mom and family. But now I am intrigued, as it appears Elisa and her son are back, to see what happens with her, Parker, and their son. These relationships might be an interesting place for the show to move away from its color-blind approach, but perhaps that is wishful thinking. Also, three cheers for Luke developing a crush on Parker! I think that would be an awesome situation.

Jennifer: This is why we have fan fiction, folks! And yes, the fact that race hasn’t come up at all in this situation with Elisa and Parker’s son Eric is curious. She’s been trying to keep Parker out of Eric’s life, but racial complications never come up as an issue there? It just seems odd, too much effort to keep what would be an understandable storyline out of the picture.

How do you think this season so far compares to past seasons? What are your thoughts on the changes?

Jennifer: Alright, so this is one of those instances where you don’t realize how much someone contributes until they’re really gone, but I can’t believe how much I miss Fred. I’m glad Ben Feldman got such a great role as Michael Ginsberg on Mad Men, but I think DDD is really missing something without the chemistry between him and Jane. They had a nice little snappiness to them, almost like a big sister/little brother relationship, where Jane was always kind of pushing him around and blowing him off and he was this earnest little well-intentioned pipsqueak who always wound up being right. I’m not getting that from Luke even though they’re trying to maintain some of those dynamics. He’s like a JC Penney model, a little too smooth and airbrushed for me, a little smarmy too. I also feel like there’s a tone of sadness about this season. Until this most recent episode, it felt like it lacked some of the mirth that past seasons have had right from the start.

Phoebe B: I too miss Fred SO much. I second your thoughts on Luke as well, he is far too smooth and shiney for my taste. I also kind of loved how Jane had a Jewish guardian angel (or maybe he wasn’t, but I think I just really wanted him to be like it was my own projection). I do like that Stacy is developing as a character more and starting to move on from her not-too-successful modelling career into the Pake (pie meets cake) business.

Jennifer: Yes, Fred as the Jewish guardian angel! I love it! I say all the better to feature a more ecumenical heavenly host. And I like the idea of Stacy the former model as a food entrepreneur. The show has featured her as a self-starter in a few episodes, like the one with her shopping website. However, I also thought they wrote Stacy a little dumber than usual for the first few episodes, which I didn’t like. I always thought of Stacy as a “blond savant” character, like Brittany on Glee, that sort of “wise näif” who would usually end up with the smartest lines or an unwitting solution to a thorny case for Jane. In pairing her up for the first three episodes with Kim Kardashian, in a guest role as love-guru-cum-con-artist Nikki, it seemed like the writers took her down a few too many pegs.

What do you think about the trajectory of the relationship between Jane and Grayson? What do you think of the Grayson vs. Owen competition? And who are you rooting for?

Phoebe B: I think it is interesting but I am rooting for Owen (although his recent competitiveness is not very endearing, but I do understand it I think). But I am kind of irked by the notion that only now that Grayson knows that Deb is Jane and Jane is Deb that he is interested in her. I think that his falling in love with her now that he knows Deb is in Jane’s body feels weird and like Grayson is falling for Jane’s inner beauty (ie Deb) rather than her outer beauty or some combination thereof. But I also kind of imagine that Jane and Grayson will kiss at some point or try to go on a date but it will be awkward and she, perhaps, will no longer be into him. But I am still on team Owen, because he loves Jane for Jane (who is some combination of Deb and Jane).

Jennifer: I have to say, one of the things that I have most appreciated about the show is that Jane has never exactly lacked for suitors. Even though the “old Jane” is talked about as not having felt very attractive, there’s always an old boyfriend, lover, or one-night-stand popping up in storylines about Jane’s past life. And in the ongoing narrative of the show, Jane has continued to have romantic relationships outside of her infatuation with Grayson, like Tony in the first and second seasons and now Owen.

I like Owen a lot. I like that he’s a big, smart, confident, adventurous guy who constantly surprises Jane and takes every opportunity to sweep her off her feet. But the show has so built up this desire for Grayson over the past three seasons that I feel this sense of obligation to see that relationship happen. And that really irritates me, but the show’s been so consistently leading up to this it’s hard to feel another way. And like you, it also bothers me that the way they’re starting to get them together is through Grayson’s realization that Jane is Deb, so he’s more in love with the idea of finally being with Deb than with Jane. I would rather have seen him fall in love with Jane, then maybe have some kind of crisis over realizing that Jane is Deb, creating a little break in that relationship followed by a final reunion between them toward the end of the series. Now it just feels like it’s going to be forced, and then where will the relationship go from there? Not really sure how they’ll see it through.

The “Ugly Duckling” Show seems a play on “Swan” from the early 2000s. But also seems to call up references to The Biggest Loser or Extreme Makeover, Weight Loss Edition, etc. Do you think the show is in conversation these programs?

Jennifer: Yes, most definitely! The show is really good at incorporating items from current popular culture, like particular diets and fashions, reality TV shows like American Idol and Project Runway (fortuitously, also on Lifetime), even an episode on an Ashley Madison-style dating service for cheating marrieds, so yes, I definitely think they’re intentionally including and commenting on these shows, which is one of the reasons I so love it!

Phoebe B: Seconded! I like the way the most recent episode was (like older ones) very much in conversation with the current reality TV makeover driven landscape. And I particularly liked Jane’s closing argument about how bodies are expected to behave in particular ways. Throughout the episode, Jane has been told by her jury consultant to behave in a more restrictive and therefore professional manner. But then in her closing statement, Jane says something along the lines of how if she looked like a rail thin runway model, nobody would judge her mannerisms, her walk, her tone, or the way she dresses. And I felt like it was a cool moment where Jane pushes back on those expectations and embraces her walk, talk, and general amazingness.

Jennifer: Agreed. And the way the actress, Brooke Elliott, so thoroughly performs and actively embodies Jane it’s a shame she hasn’t been up for a best comedic actress Emmy.

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