By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com May 09 2014 7:00 AM ET
Law & Order isn't the only show known for its ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling. The hit Lifetime series, Drop Dead Diva, has been doing it for six years, often tackling issues of great importance to LGBT viewers along the way. Now in its final season, the show — created by gay showrunner Josh Berman — is about to do it again this Sunday with an episode titled "Identity Crisis."
In the episode, Jane (the plucky and plus size attorney at the center of the series) represents the family of 10-year-old Sam (who was born Samantha) after school administrators prevent the transgender elementary school student from using the boys’ room at his private school. After the school insists that as a private school it is not bound to follow California’s School Success and Opportunity Act, Jane files suit. The school board escalates by expelling Sam for supposedly deceiving them about his gender on his application and counter-sues to recover the financial aid provided to Sam under what they allege were false pretenses. The court battle takes a toll on Sam and his family, but in the end the case educates everyone, even the allies, about the meaning of acceptance and biology.
It's the kind of episode LGBT fans have come to expect from the show.
"Over the past six years, Drop Dead Diva has masterfully adapted LGBT news stories to the small screen in an entertaining and compelling way," said GLAAD national spokesperson Wilson Cruz. "From the story of lesbian teen Constance McMillen not being able to bring her girlfriend to prom, to the recent episode about a gay professional athlete, the series has allowed millions of viewers to gain insight into LGBT lives and will definitely be missed."
Behind it all was Berman, who began his career as a writer at CSI; when he left that show, he was an executive producer (his brother David is still a researcher and actor on the show, playing assistant coroner Super Dave). We caught up with the former Fulbright Scholar to talk about the end of Drop Dead Diva.
Left: Josh Berman
The Advocate: It’s been a great six seasons. Are you ready for it to end?
Josh Berman: It's been a great six years. I have written an ending to the series, but I love these characters and wish the show could go on. In season six, we've actually been gaining viewers each week, which makes it even harder to say good-bye. To be honest, I really don't think the show is over. In some form, I hope it will continue. If no where else, the characters will continue to live on in my head.
You’ve included a lot of different issues on the show, not just LGBT ones, but social justice issues, dating issues, and so on. How many of your own issues have you been able to work out through the show?
I play out pretty much everything in my personal life on the show. If you watch Drop Dead Diva, you probably know way too much about me.
You’ve had a lot of LGBT folks working on the show: director Jamie Babbit, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron as producers, Margaret Cho in the cast, as well as many guest stars. Was that intentional?
I never intentionally set out to work with someone based on their sexuality. I think the show's central theme is about being true to oneself, so I'm not surprised that talented gay and lesbian artists have been attracted to the series both in front and behind the camera. I think queer viewers have responded to the same theme.
The show has been nominated for a GLAAD award for outstanding episode each year for the last four years. What does that mean to you?
I'm so proud of the GLAAD nominations. It means the world to me. The show is about pride — feeling good about yourself — and the GLAAD nomination certainly validates that theme.
Last year’s GLAAD-winning episode was really meaningful since it was inspired by Candace McMillans’s fight to take her girlfriend to the prom. That made me wonder if with Diva you’re able to right the wrongs, the injustices that exist out on the world as well?
The series allows me to play out my fantasies in terms of fighting social injustice. On Drop Dead Diva, the moral argument wins the day. I love a show that explores issues of social justice and the good guys win because we're smarter and more logical than our adversaries. Plus, I always love a happy ending.
What story lines have really impacted you, or meant something really significant to you?
Don't laugh, but I'm often moved by my own stories. One day, Brooke Elliott [who plays the show's heroine, Jane] and I were watching an episode together and we realized that we had both started crying. The issues on Drop Dead Diva are often very close to my heart. The stories about love and family are the ones that move me the most.
I read that you originally wanted to model a character after your grandmother. How did you get from her to Jane?
My grandmother was a short, overweight Holocaust survivor. Her family was all murdered. She instilled in me the confidence to do whatever I set out to accomplish. She was the greatest influence in my life. I wanted to write a show about her. However, no one was going to buy a show about my grandmother. Hence, I took the spirt of who she was. She looked like a grandmother, but after what she had been through, there was nothing else left for her to lose. She had confidence and an inner-beauty that didn't match the way she looked on the outside. That became the spirit of Jane. My grandmother's name was Deb and that's why I named the character in Diva, Deb.
What’s next for you?
I just signed a new deal with Sony to write more television shows. I'm looking forward to the next chapter but it's not easy leaving Drop Dead Diva.
What’s it been like working with this cast?
I love my cast. They are like family. We laugh a lot and they are special people. Over six years, we have celebrated a lot of good and some bad times together. I will miss them greatly.
See the best LGBT moments from Drop Dead Diva on the following pages >>>
Episode: "Do Over" in season one
Newcomer Brooke Elliott as Jane (left) discovers that she's friends with the no-nonsense judge, played by out actress Rosie O’Donnell, in an episode that finds Jane back in court fighting a company that isn't playing fair with workers' lives.
Episode: "Queen of Mean"
Cybill Shepherd, the real-life mother of two queer daughters — The L Word's Clementine Ford and former SheWired blogger Ariel Shepherd-Oppenheim — guest stars in this episode as a fashion guru who is suing to stop publication of a tell-all book about her.
Episode: "Queen of Mean"
The male dance revue, Thunder Down Under, guest stars (here with Brooke Elliott) on that same episode.
Episode: "Queen of Mean"
In another storyline, transgender actress Candis Cayne guest stars alongside Kate Levering and Jackson Hurst in an episode in which the two lawyers must represent Cayne in a feud with her in-laws over her late partner's property. The storyline garnered the series a GLAAD nomination.
Ben Feldman (middle) joins guest star Lance Bass on a beachy shoot. Bass was joined by other LGBT celebs (Amanda Bearse, Wanda Sykes) on this episode about a teenage lesbian who was denied the chance to attend their senior prom together.
Brooke Elliott with guest stars Wanda Sykes and Constance McMillen, the teen lesbian activist who fought a battle to take her own girlfriend to prom. (Watch a video with McMillan talking about the experience of being on and inspiring Drop Dead Diva.)
Episode: "He Said, She Said"
In a very serious episode about rape, a lighter storyline has LGBT uber-ally Kathy Griffin playing Kim's argumentative sister, who is seeking a divorce.
Episode: "Would I Lie To You?"
Paula Abdul returned to play "Judge Paula Abdul" in the second season premiere of Drop Dead Diva. The ladies dance. There's really nothing particularly queer except, well, it's Paula Abdul.
Episode: "Winning Ugly"
Ever Carradine (left) and Anne Ramsay (who played gay in Secret Life of the American Teen and The L Word) guest star in an episode that involves a pet rat.Episode: "Identity Crisis"
In the episode that airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime, Jane represents a transgender boy in elementary school after he isn't allowed to use a restroom and later gets kicked out of his private school.
Episode: "Family Matters"
A gay sperm donor seeks to retain his parental rights.
All images courtesy of Lifetime Television (Bob Mahoney and Annette Brown).