‘Drop Dead Diva’ Season Three Premiere

Drop Dead Diva has a lot going for it. Its clever pop culture references, song-and-dance dream sequences, and winning cast all make it a lively story of lawyers finding pleasure in their ids. Too bad the high concept premise — Heaven Can Wait meets Legally Blonde — also sticks them with a reactionary gender politics.

As the third season starts, the cosmic “mix-up” that landed dead fashion model Deb (Brooke D’Orsay) in the body of lawyer Jane (Brooke Elliott), is now familiar, at least to Deb, her guardian angel Fred (Ben Feldman) and her best friend Stacy (April Bowlby). The season premiere sets us up to root for Deb’s soul-mate dreams about her lawyer husband Grayson (Jackson Hurst) — who still believes she died in the car wreck that led to the switched bodies. At the same time, we know she’s in danger of breaking the “rules” of her new existence — which can only have dire consequences.

To begin the new season, she must deal with Grayson coming out of the coma he fell into in last season’s finale. Will he remember that he recognized that she’s really Deb? Can she tell him what happened? Or must she return to just being his friend, “plain Jane,” and stand by and watch while he marries his beautiful fiancée, Vanessa (Jaime Ray Newman)? This episode’s case-of-the-week has Jane defending movie star Tim (Nick Zano), accused of a DUI that results in the death of a 12-year-old girl. The two plot lines reiterate the show’s moralizing stereotypes, this time setting Jane’s noble suffering against Tim’s estranged wife (LeAnn Rimes).

As usual, Deb’s knowledge of celebrity culture and Jane’s legal expertise make their doubled-self an ace lawyer with a populist heart. Reminiscent of Working Girl, the show makes a “feminine” knowledge of pop culture seem value-added: it only helps Deb in the courtroom, as she and her sidekick Stacy quote People magazine in order to solve cases. As the Rimes turn suggests, Drop Dead Diva emphasizes this theme in its guest star casting, including a series of openly gay celebrities, including Wanda Sykes, Lance Bass, Clay Aiken, and Amanda Bearse, as well as the near-regular Paula Abdul, who appears as herself in Jane’s dream sequences: she pops up in the season premiere with her patented kooky advice. Wendy Williams also appears as a no-nonsense judge hearing a case of “booty call caused by false advertising.” Perfect Wendy.

Such self-aware trappings don’t distract enough from the show’s frustratingly backward politics. Even as we root for our plucky heroine, we’re invited to do so because she’s a model “trapped” in an ugly duckling “vessel” and can’t get back to Grayson. This isn’t a woman embracing her inner beauty.

Deb’s pluck actually undermines her professionalism, as if the best way to be a woman lawyer is to giggle, talk about make-up, and use a little girl voice à la Paris Hilton. In the season premiere, Jane disarms the jury by grinning, “I’m usually more prepared than this,” her aw-shucks, Valley Girl-style delivery apparently making her non-threatening to them.

Stacy is similarly reduced to two dimensions. The series recuperates her ditziness by having her solve cases through observing a detail others miss. But she surprises at such moments precisely because she typically behaves like a “dumb blond,” as when Stacy cheerfully says, “My yoga instructor says I’m so focused that sometimes it seems like there’s nothing in my head.”

Similarly using and maybe challenging a stereotype, the episode called “Dream Big” (airing 10 July) features a lawsuit against a sperm bank for “false advertising,” brought by a client with a little person son, who has overwhelming medical bills. The episode carefully tries not to treat the son as a liability, but Jane and her team make a “product defect” argument to get him and his mother money to pay bills. The odd plotline also becomes an occasion for Jane’s assistant Teri (Margaret Cho) to observe that “custom-made babies are the natural evolution of our culture,” which sounds true, if discomforting.

A second case has strippers battling poor labor conditions, inspired when Grayson meets an asthmatic stripper coughing in the smoky club at his bachelor party. He resolves to help her, even as he also tells his best man Jane to “loosen up” and “be cool” with strip clubs. Jane unwillingly gets a lap dance and, through a bit of tired slapstick, ends up pole dancing herself. The strippers assert, “We’re dancers, not dummies.” However, it’s hard to get over Grayson’s insistence that strip clubs are “cool,” rather than businesses banking on the objectification of women.

Drop Dead Diva seems regularly to be patting silly, charming women on their heads and telling them they’re cute, as when Jane’s new boyfriend (David Denman) tries to soothe her by saying, “When you get mad, you’re pretty adorable.” Such irritations undermine the show’s kicky surrealism, like a disco ball opening sequence in this season’s premiere. Yes, we’ve seen lawyers dancing in their dreams before, but this scene is mostly joyful, less neurotic than Ally McBeal, less tortured than Eli Stone. It’s too bad that these good dreams run up against the rest of the show.

RATING 4 / 10