Josh Berman: Death Becomes Him
BY Jeremy Kinser
September 15 2011 8:00 AM ET
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.