'Drop Dead Diva' creator Josh Berman talks about resurrecting his TV show
It seems only fitting that a TV show about a character who cheats death would itself come back to life after cancelation. That's exactly what happened to Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva," which returns for a fifth season Sun. June 23 at 9:00 p.m. despite having been given the axe after last season wrapped -- and just as the show had tossed in a direction-changing twist. Needless to say, fans mourned first -- and started campaigning next.
What happened as a result had plenty to do with fan devotion (the show trended on Twitter for two weeks after cancelation), but it also took some maneuvering by show creator Josh Berman, who spoke to me about the process in a phone interview. Though the Emmy-nominated Berman cut his teeth on darker (or at least grislier) fare like "CSI" and "Bones," his perspective on what it took to revive "Diva" is more fitting of the upbeat, feel-good Lifetime show. The "whole process [of reviving the show] was exciting, really," he said without a hint of sarcasm. "I was able to use my creative background and my business background through the process. I wish I could take all the credit, but I can't. The fan campaign was one of the biggest ever to bring back a cable TV show."
When I asked Berman why Lifetime, after having cut the cord, seems to be giving "Diva" a decent promotional push now (season four is now available on VOD as well as DVD), he replied, "[With basic cable], your audience is less than that of a [big four] network's to begin with, but when they discover the fan base is as strong and as vocal as ours is, it's hard to say no. Basic cable networks work so hard to find a show that resonates with viewers, they want to keep that audience."
The process of resurrecting the show took place quickly. "Within a couple of days, there were thousands of names on petitions to bring back the show, and dozens of fan videos demanding the show come back. Then, we had interest from other networks," he said.
Though some show creators might have considered moving just out of spite, Berman wasn't so inclined. "I think it is hard to jump ship. They [Lifetime] were open to bringing the show back, and then it was a question of the license fee."
Countless aging shows have had to cut corners by killing off key cast members or special guests, but "Diva" wasn't one of them. "We were able to reduce the license fee without hurting the production values of the show at all," he explained. "In five years, we've invested so much in infrastructure. We own our own edit equipment, our sets, all of it. It didn't take much to cut back without reducing the quality of the show in any way."
To that end, Berman says plenty of special guests will be popping up on the show. Comedian Sandra Bernhard will appear, John Ratzenberger will be back for more episodes, and Barbara Corcoran ("Shark Tank") will also guest. "We're attracting more and more people who want to be on the show," Berman said. "We're one of the most popular shows for A-list stars to guest on, but we don't pay a lot of money. It's because we're one of the few shows out there that's life affirming, and stars are drawn to being part of something that's good and inspirational." It also helps that they don't have to choose between being a murderer or ending up on a slab.
Still, the show's inspirational slant didn't save it from being cut, a move Berman admits he didn't predict. "With women 25 to 54, I believe we're the top rated show on the network, so I did not see the cancelation coming at all. I had already started planning for season five. I'm a huge TV fan, and I would never leave our fans hanging."
Given the way season 4 ended -- with the original Jane seemingly finding a path back to Earth in the body of Owen (Deb/Jane's fiance), thus giving the show an entirely new direction -- it would have been a pretty big sucker punch to let the show wrap there. "I would want resolution, too. I've always said the first four seasons of the show were a platform for season five. Our fans are such diehard viewers, I want them to be rewarded."
Even though the show is taking a turn, that doesn't mean it will be hard for new viewers to jump in. "They'll find it very easy to join in. We're making it accessible to new viewers and rewarding the returning ones."
Season five may be pivotal, but that doesn't mean Berman is bracing for a fond farewell, either. If Lifetime remains true, Berman isn't looking at this season as a chance to wrap up loose ends, either. "I don't see this as the final season. I think we're gonna grow our fan base."
He may be right. Given the current trend in dark and darker TV, "Drop Dead Diva" stands out. " I feel there's an exhaustion factor you hit watching murder investigations," Berman said. "This show is fun. It's a good way to end the week, and these are characters you can really invest in. It's so life-affirming, plus we're one of only 6 shows that increased ratings year to year." In other words, there's life left in this "Diva" after all.