Friday, July 17, 2009

"Drop Dead Diva" and "Battle of the Bods": Is This Any Way to Treat a Lady?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Here is the worst-kept secret about television: The networks lure viewers using attractive women. They want actresses men can ogle and women can aspire to look like (how many "Rachel" haircuts popped up in the mid-1990s?). It's like an unspoken deal: The networks promise to cast attractive women in their shows but won't really acknowledge consciously doing so, and the public won't take them to task for creating a world that doesn't look much like real life. (You could fill a half-hour TV slot just reading the names of pretty actresses cast as the wife of heavy and/or less-than-handsome men.)

Which is why I found it so interesting that two programs premiered this week (one is a new show, the other a launch of a new season) that, in completely opposite ways, thumb their noses at the unspoken deal.

Lifetime's new series "Drop Dead Diva" (Sundays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern) opens with a blonde model, Deb (Brooke D'Orsay), looking into a full-length mirror, asking her boyfriend, "Do my knees look fat?" Soon, we meet brilliant lawyer Jane (Brooke Elliott), who is the anti-Deb. She is heavy, doesn't put thought into her looks, and surrounds herself with self-help books, a workaholic trying to find happiness. While Jane tries to get ahead through her ability, she often finds herself losing ground to scheming barracuda Kim (Kate Levering), who isn't afraid to use her good looks to move up the firm ladder.

After Deb's car runs into a truck (apparently, talking on the phone and putting on your makeup while driving is a bad thing; Who knew?), she finds herself in an after-life way station that looks a lot like a shopping mall. Her gatekeeper, Fred (Ben Feldman), informs her that she is a rare "zero-zero": someone who has committed no bad acts while on earth, but who also has done no good deeds. Not wanting to accept that she's dead, Deb hits the return button on Fred's computer (a sign admonishes workers not to do so without permission), and the result is Deb being whisked into Jane's body. Jane had been accidentally shot by the husband of a client who was angry because Jane's boss slept with his wife. Doctors thought they were losing her, but when Deb arrives in Jane's body, she immediately recovers.

Fred arrives at Jane/Deb's hospital bedside to provide the exposition of the show: Deb is now in Jane's body; Deb does not retain any of Jane's memories, but she does have Jane's genius-level intelligence; and Jane/Deb (for simplicity, from here on out, I'm just going to call her Jane) can't tell anyone about the body-swapping situation, or Fred, who has been demoted to guardian angel, will report her and she'll go to H-E-Double Toothpicks.

Jane steers clear of her home (which she shared with her boyfriend, Grayson, played by Jackson Hurst), and with nowhere else to go, she convinces her shallow-to-the-max best friend Stacy (April Bowlby), that she is Deb trapped in Jane's body. Stacy responds to Jane's plight by saying, "Fat things should not happen to good people." When Fred finds out that Jane spilled the beans, Jane, using her newfound intelligence, explains to Fred that he will get in trouble if she does, so he won't turn her in to protect his job. She's right. But he gets a job at the law firm to keep an eye on her.

Early on, the battle lines of the program seem to be drawn: Shallow, good looking women are bad, while less attractive smart women are good. But, in many ways, that's not how the first episode (which aired with only a handful of commercial breaks) played out.

On the one hand, Jane definitely learns a lesson in her new body. She realizes that she doesn't want to be shallow (a zero-zero), and she finds satisfaction in helping her law clients. There is a great moment where Jane tries to convince a man to do something, and she starts to get flirty and touch the man's chest, but she stops at the last minute, realizing that her strategy won't work with her new appearance.

But there is also a Hollywood romantic comedy aspect to Jane's transformation, in the idea that her knowledge of how to look good can be a cure-all. In a story line that reminded me of "Legally Blonde," Jane advises a client, a wife who caught her husband cheating but is embarrassed to testify about it in court (which would be needed to bust their prenuptial agreement), to be more confident and improve her looks. Stacy helps her give the woman a makeover (new dress, new sexy walk), and, eventually, her new sense of self-worth gives her the guts to stand up to her husband, who agrees to give her half of everything.

I'm not sure how the makeover-as-problem-solver idea co-exists with the idea of Jane learning to be less shallow. I guess that's really the problem with "Drop Dead Diva": an uncertain approach to what it wants to be. There is no doubt that there are moments that buck television's glorification of women's looks, but there are other times that feel like the show is part of the problem.

I had trouble getting a handle on how to judge the show. From a science fiction standpoint, the reincarnation aspect wouldn't pass muster with fans of that genre. Somehow, even though the new Jane doesn't retain any memories, she is loaded with know-how on how the law works. If Jane retained intelligence but not memories (she only remembers Deb's life), how would she know what she learned in law school? It seems her newfound IQ would allow her to learn how to be lawyer, but not to actually know the nuts and bolts of the law. I also didn't buy why Deb is allowed to live on in Jane's body. In "Heaven Can Wait" (and the original, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"), the main character is wrongly plucked from earth too early, thus requiring that their souls be deposited into new bodies. It wasn't their time. But in "Drop Dead Diva," it was Deb's time.

But this is Lifetime, after all, so I'm clearly being unfair in overanalyzing the mechanics of the supernatural aspect of the plot. And similarly, I would be missing the point to criticize the lousy representations of lawyers and the law (everything Jane does resolves issues way too quickly and simply). I guess "Drop Dead Diva" should be judged as light entertainment that focuses on character and relationships, especially Jane adjusting to her new body. We watch as Deb goes from saying, "Being a prize model on the 'Price Is Right' isn't an audition, it's a career," and, "I've never been more than a size 2, and that's only because of the freshman 15, which is why I quit community college," to her, as Jane, giving an impassioned and inspired closing argument on behalf of her client, whose wife jumped out of a window during a hallucination caused by a faulty sleeping pill.

"Drop Dead Diva" is also about Jane's grief, since not only is Grayson no longer available to her, but, thanks to a positive endorsement from Jane (the original Jane, who, coincidentally, interviewed Grayson before she died), he will be working at the firm. He is being targeted by the evil Kim, who brings him a plant and touches his chest while they talk.

But, for me anyway (and I know, I'm not in Lifetime's target audience), "Drop Dead Diva" doesn't work as escapist fare. The humor too often falls flat (I didn't find it funny when the newly large Jane tries to put on one of Deb's skirts, splitting it in half in the process; it felt more mean than funny, and I didn't believe for a second Jane would think the tiny thing would fit on her new frame). The drama is clunky and overly choreographed. And the characters are all so two-dimensional. I know that Margaret Cho is getting positive notices for her turn as Jane's tough and protective assistant, but I thought she, too, wasn't very developed.

Which got me thinking: How am I supposed to feel about a show that is supposed to decry the pressure put on women to be thin and attractive, but, at the same time, portrays every woman as some kind of cliched type? The vacuous models, the whimpering cheated-on wife, the tough assistant, and the fat girl who is smart and neurotic but lacks friends. Is the show helping or hurting? I've read reviews of Sasha Baron Cohen's new movie, "Bruno," that say it's offensive on one level, but so entertaining that it may be worth it. With "Drop Dead Diva," I feel the reverse is in play. The show made me uncomfortable, and it wasn't funny or dramatic enough to allow me to get past it. I think the tipping point was when I realized that the two main commercials during the first commercial break featured a beautiful model hawking skin cream and Stacy London (of "What Not to Wear") shilling for shampoo, with, of course, perfect hair. Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to "follow the money." That might be good advice with "Drop Dead Diva."

While "Drop Dead Diva" gives off mixed signals, there is no doubt what "Battle of the Bods" (Fox Reality, Saturdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) is trying to do. The program is the id run wild, taking five attractive women, undressing them, and then trying to get them to argue with each other.

The premise of the show is staggeringly simple. Five women have to guess how three guys (each show has a theme relating to the guys, like they are lifeguards or weightlifters; this year's premiere featured twin brothers and their best friend) will rate them on two body parts and their overall look. First, the women have to arrange themselves by face. And when I say arrange themselves, I mean it literally; they stand on circles in order, one through five. The team gets $500 per correct guess. The second round is "lady's choice," where the women choose a body part (in the premiere, it is their behinds). Finally, they have to guess how the men will rank them over all. While being ranked, they generally wear lingerie.

Of course, it's not enough that the contestants might argue through the process on their own (usually, one woman is a de facto villain, pissing off the other four with her judgments), but they also have host Olivia Lee skillfully trying to foment conflict. Lee sounds like a younger, sexier Anne Robinson (host of "The Weakest Link"), tossing out bad puns like calling the contestants "hot honeys" or "dazzling damsels," and asking, "Will they work as a team, or will their egos get in the way?" Or, "Will our ladies be able to work together to walk away with the moola, or will their cattiness land them in the doghouse?"

In this year's premiere, predictably, things went downhill quickly. One of the women, who was rated fourth in the first two rounds, got into a battle with two bleach-blonde sisters, arguing over which of them was ugly (and threatening each other, with the sisters saying they were black belts and their nemesis claiming to take boxing classes). In a shocking turn of events (yes, I'm being sarcastic), the episode's villain actually placed second in the final ranking, much to the dismay of the sisters who insisted she occupy the fourth place again.

The thing about "Battle of the Bods" is that it is completely and utterly guileless. It is the kind of show in which Lee will say, "Bring those sexy seats center stage," after which the camera will focus lovingly on each of the contestants' butts. That about sums it up. The only concession to any kind of political correctness is the final scene, in which the women can double their money if they can guess how the three guys, stripped to their boxer briefs, will rate themselves. Other than that almost tacked-on moment (in the season premiere, it occurred at the 26-minute mark), the show is nothing short of an excuse to get women nearly naked, and to pit them against each other. (I guess I'm a typical guy in that I like the nearly naked part, but I am, possibly, less typical in that I get no joy from the cat fights.)

The prize at stake is comparatively small by TV standards (the women shared $6,000 after correctly guessing how the guys would rank themselves). Humiliation is going cheap, I guess, but then again, if you go on a television program called "Battle of the Bods," knowing it airs on Fox Reality, the self-respect bar has to be set pretty low. I found it telling that in the season premiere, the woman who was ranked first in all three contests was on the show to raise money for breast implants. Apparently, even being ranked the prettiest woman of the day isn't enough.

"Battle of the Bods" may take delight in objectifying women, but it makes no bones about what it is setting out to do. "Drop Dead Diva" left me more conflicted. And most of all, it just isn't as entertaining as it could have been.