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The real biggest loser

Lifetime condescends to the overweight with Drop Dead Diva

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Only with TV’s representation of the overweight so monumentally out of whack could the condescending new dramedy Drop Dead Diva (Lifetime, Sundays, 9 p.m.) be considered a positive step forward. The press kit for the show comes covered in glowing quotes from representatives of various women’s organizations, but if this is the best TV has to offer when it comes to depicting the way many (even most) real people’s bodies look, we’ve got a long, long way to go.

The idea is this: Vapid fashion model Deb dies in a bloodless car accident and is accidentally reincarnated in the body of also recently deceased plus-sized lawyer Jane (Brooke Elliott). This isn’t All of Me or one of those 1980s body-switching movies, though: Jane herself, glimpsed briefly in the pilot’s opening moments, is off to the great beyond, leaving Deb to live Jane’s life in Jane’s body, albeit with some extra lawyer knowledge imported, presumably to avoid stretching credulity too much. Deb/Jane also has a guardian angel, demoted because he messed up Deb’s afterlife processing; a loyal assistant (Margaret Cho, who should know better); Deb’s aspiring-model best friend (who knows her secret); and Deb’s grieving boyfriend, now conveniently working at the same law firm.

The Details

Drop Dead Diva
Two stars
Beyond the Weekly
Lifetime: Drop Dead Diva

It’s all really, really contrived, of course, but not necessarily any more so than any other absurd high-concept TV show. The problem is that the show is so taken with the idea that it’s offering a progressive take on body image that it has virtually nothing else going for it. Worse, that take on body image is so reductive and single-minded that it has the opposite of the intended effect: By focusing so exclusively on Jane’s weight and the world’s reactions to it, Diva loses sight of exploring Jane (or Deb, whatever) as an actual human being.

Because it would be unthinkable, of course, to have a show with an overweight female lead that wasn’t inherently about her being overweight; you have to go back to Roseanne to find a successful scripted show anchored by a plus-size woman that didn’t spend all its energy on its heroine’s efforts to lose weight and/or accept herself the way she is. Sure, Melissa McCarthy’s managed significant supporting roles on both Gilmore Girls and Samantha Who? without having to deal with body-image storylines, but she’s not going to be headlining her own show unless she loses loads of weight or signs up to play the spokesperson for a diet company (for example). Hell, the only way Kirstie Alley’s gotten work recently is by starring in a show called Fat Actress.

So pity poor Elliott, an appealing comic performer forced into a parade of humiliating situations to demonstrate just how fat and helpless Jane really is (it should be noted, of course, that she’s thinner than a whole lot of average TV-watchers). Whenever the show departs from lessons about fat acceptance, though, it isn’t any better: Diva is as slapdash and unconvincing a legal drama as can be, and as Jane gets used to her predicament and the legal-case plots have to carry more of the workload, the show is bound to grow even more tedious.

Lifetime is going all out to promote its supposedly open-minded stance on larger women, and producers have booked virtually every working actress who isn’t a Size 0 to appear on Diva’s first season: In addition to Cho as a series regular, guest stars will include Rosie O’Donnell, Delta Burke and Kathy Najimy, among others. Certainly Kirstie Alley is on the phone to her agent right now. If she wants back on scripted TV, this is the only option she’s got.

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