Josh Berman is full of surprises. The affable, fresh-faced 41-year-old creator of Drop Dead Diva could easily pass as a typical, unassuming boy next door — literally, he’s so youthful-looking in person that he gets carded when ordering cocktails while flying in business class and he’s been mistaken for the office gofer during casting sessions. Yet when Berman speaks about his hit Lifetime series and the effect it’s had on viewers, there’s a straightforwardness in his speaking manner and a directness in his gaze that can only come with maturity.
While Diva at first seems just an update on the durable body-swapping concept that has provided fodder for comedies ranging from Freaky Friday to this summer’s The Change-Up, Berman is after something deeper, richer, and more than just sight gags. The show’s heroine, Deb, a vapid model wannabe reincarnated in the zaftig body of Jane (Brooke Elliott), a go-getter attorney, not only finds validation each week but takes viewers on an educational journey.
“I work out a lot of my issues on the show,” Berman says, with a smile as he sips a late-afternoon tea at a quiet restaurant on a bustling street in West Hollywood. “Whether it’s dating or there’s an inequity or injustice, I can actually do something about it and make sure millions of people around the world see it, whether they like it or not.”
Since it premiered in 2009, millions of people have fallen for the series, which stars queer actress Margaret Cho and has a crew that features out producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron as well as lesbian director Jamie Babbit. Diva has been a breakout hit for the network synonymous with women’s dilemma-of-the-week movies. It’s not only attracted high-caliber guest stars such as Liza Minnelli and Rosie O’Donnell, it’s provided the perfect vehicle for Berman to draw from newspaper headlines for story ideas.
“There’s nothing like realism to make fiction better,” Berman says with a chuckle. The show received a GLAAD Award nomination for a transgender-themed episode, and Constance McMillen, who was prevented from attending her high school prom with a female date, inspired another. Berman’s social awareness has also resulted in the show’s recent nomination for a prestigious Humanitas Prize. Still, the light tone of the series marks a change of pace for Berman, who, after writing an attention-grabbing spec script for Seinfeld, honed his talents on intense crime dramas including Bones and CSI, where he had a six-year stint, starting as a staff writer and leaving as an executive.
Such evolution isn’t uncharted territory for Berman, who grew up in a close-knit family in the affluent enclave of Encino, Calif. After earning law and business graduate degrees at Stanford, he departed for Australia on a Fulbright scholarship. It was while Down Under that Berman realized he was gay and had harbored a long-dormant attraction to his best male friend. Following a nervous phone call to break the news to his family, Berman found they were incredibly supportive from the beginning.
“If I’d let my mom, she’d go around the country and march in parades,” he says. “It was my grandfather who was most supportive. He was the one I was most concerned about because he was ex-military and in his 70s. He just said, ‘Oh, well, some people have blue eyes and some people have brown eyes.’ ”
Yet the most impactful member of the Berman clan is undoubtedly Deb, his late grandmother, who provided an unlikely inspiration for his TV heroine. “I was known as this dark procedural, testosterone-y writer and I wanted to write something about a great character with a heart,” he recalls. Berman thought about his grandmother, who instilled confidence and pride in him and gave the character her name.
“Even though she was a 4-foot-11, chubby Holocaust survivor, she carried herself like a supermodel,” he says. “But no one wanted to buy a show about an old Jewish grandmother.” Berman was determined to inject her spirit into a character who would live and breathe and be dynamic on television.
“I created a package that wasn’t a supermodel and infused her with a supermodel’s spirit and point of view,” he says.
Also unusual is Diva’s broad demographic appeal, which is particularly gratifying to Berman. The show’s message rings true with viewers of all ages — a chubby fourth-grader in his teacher friend’s classroom is one devoted fan — and he hears from straight male enthusiasts. “They say their wives or girlfriends are watching it and then they’ve gotten hooked,” Berman says.
But he insists there’s no need to insert recurring LGBT characters into a series that already constantly touts self-acceptance. “I feel more of a responsibility to have a life-affirming show that says you should feel good about yourself no matter who you are,” Berman says. “I think regardless of whether it’s gender or race or religion, I want people to feel good about themselves and not to be their own worst critics.”