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TELEVISION REVIEWS

Weighty topics in three shows

Brooke Elliot stars in “Drop Dead Diva,’’ in which a plus-size lawyer inherits the spirit of a model. Brooke Elliot stars in “Drop Dead Diva,’’ in which a plus-size lawyer inherits the spirit of a model. (Guy D’Alema/Lifetime Television)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / July 11, 2009
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At one point in “Drop Dead Diva,’’ the Lifetime series that premieres tomorrow night at 9, the heavyset main character stares longingly at a doughnut. It’s the oldest joke on Earth - somewhere, there must be cave drawings of women craving deep-fried bison. And yet it represents a TV rarity: a showcase for an actress who isn’t impossibly thin.

It’s a case of scripted drama following reality TV, which is in the midst of a plus-sized programming renaissance. The women’s network Oxygen has “Dance Your Ass Off,’’ a twist on weight-loss reality shows. The Style Network has the second season of “Ruby,’’ a docudrama about a woman whose weight once topped 500 pounds. Later this month, Fox will premiere the dating show “More to Love,’’ in which the dueling bachelorettes are all well beyond size 2. All promise to present the overweight as both triumphant figures and objects of fascination.

If they’re anything like Brooke Elliott, the likable star of “Drop Dead Diva,’’ they’ll be worthy of attention. Elliott plays Jane Bingum, a smart, underconfident, plus-size lawyer who buys her bland business suits from Lane Bryant. When she dies unexpectedly, her body is occupied by the spirit of Deb (Brooke D’Orsay), a beautiful, airheaded, self-absorbed model whose chief ambition, before she perished in a car crash, was to be a letter-turner on “Wheel of Fortune.’’

Here’s where the premise gets tricky: Deb keeps her memories and her personality, but she inherits Jane’s intellect, her knowledge of the rules of evidence, and her considerable appetite for fattening food. She suddenly has the best of both worlds: the confidence of a beautiful woman, the brains of a dowdy one. Because, in the world of TV comedy, it’s far easier to see such things as mutually exclusive.

As Deb-inside-Jane, Elliott does a great job portraying pathos, absurd disappointment, and wide-eyed discovery. Being Jane is a shock to her size-2 inner self, but it can also be a thrill; she’s giddy about her newfound ability to think complex thoughts.

She’s far more interesting to watch than the other characters, which include the venal hottie who plays nasty politics (Kate Levering), and the malleable boyfriend (Jackson Hurst) who may fall for Jane now that he thinks Deb is gone. Margaret Cho, nearly always wasted on TV, plays Jane’s hyperactive assistant, who understands that her boss’s stress can be relieved with a squirt of Easy Cheese, applied directly down the throat.

The Lifetime press materials quote from a half-dozen women’s groups, which heap praise on the network for creating a plus-size role model. But in truth, this show is filled with mixed messages about the links between appearance and self-esteem. In tomorrow night’s premiere, Jane gives a client the confidence to testify in court by teaching her to show off her cleavage. Jane shakes her own substantial booty with conviction, too, but only because she’s forgotten that she isn’t thin.

A more complex character, as far as weight goes, is Ruby Gettinger, the star of Style’s “Ruby,’’ which airs Sunday nights at 8. She knows that she needs to shed serious poundage. But she still loves herself unconditionally, as she should. Her weight is a physical challenge, not a character flaw.

The same goes for many of the contestants on Oxygen’s “Dance Your Ass Off,’’ a stab at combining the weight-loss journey show (a la “The Biggest Loser’’) and the sequin-studded elimination dance-off. Here, each contestant is paired with a professional dancer who provides choreography and intense cardio workouts. The resulting dances are judged by an expert panel, but the dancers’ weekly weight loss is also factored into the rankings.

Marissa Jaret Winokur, one of the least-svelte contestants ever to serve on “Dancing With the Stars,’’ hosts the show with a Broadway-trained cheeriness that can be a bit off-putting. “You don’t have to be miserable and starve yourself to lose weight!’’ she announced in the premiere, beaming a little too broadly.

But “Dance Your Ass Off’’ has a serious undercurrent, too; like Ruby, many of the contestants are obese to the point of ill health. They suffer from diabetes and liver disease, yet they still head toward the “Cheat’’ cabinet stocked with doughnuts and other junk food in their fabulous Los Angeles apartment - placed there, a doctor says with a straight face, because they need to face temptation in the real world, too. They cry about their failures and fears, and get tough love from a nutritionist.

Still, they have the sort of self-confidence that the original Jane, on “Drop Dead Diva,’’ never got to show, an admirable fearlessness about performing onstage under maximum exposure. Sure, many of them have dance experience, but the costumes are still tiny and the moves are still big. In one recent disco routine, a female contestant lifted her male dance partner with a dare-me-not-to flourish.

The dancing is sometimes uncomfortable to watch, perhaps because we’ve been trained to see these shows as the exclusive terrain of the flexible and lithe. But the contestants here refuse to be punch lines, which makes them all the more relatable. On “Drop Dead Diva,’’ Jane is one lone hourglass figure, navigating a slender world. “Dance Your Ass Off,’’ in its strange and cheesy way, is far closer to reality.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net

DROP DEAD DIVA On: Lifetime

Time: Premieres tomorrow night at 9

DANCE YOUR ASS OFF On: Oxygen

Time: Monday nights at 10

RUBY On: Style

Time: Sunday nights at 8

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