TV's 'Drop Dead Diva' a surprise success

Brooke Elliott stars in Lifetime Television’s series “Drop Dead Diva.”

PHILADELPHIA -- It's one of TV's more unlikely success stories.

Brooke Elliott was a stage trouper, performing in the national tours of musicals such as "Wicked" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Then her agent told her about a prospective Lifetime series, "Drop Dead Diva," that might suit her.

"I had a Broadway show audition that day, too," Elliott says. "I thought, 'Oh well, maybe I'll get the play. I don't have a shot at the TV show.' "

To her astonishment, she got the part, a role that requires some explanation.

Elliott plays Jane Bingum, a smart and zaftig lawyer, who is possessed by the spirit of Deb Dobkins, a shallow and skinny model. "Deb's soul is in Jane's body," says the actress.

The polar opposites have to find a way to coexist.

The premise provides a steady stream of humor and pathos. Even after she was cast, Elliott tried to keep her enthusiasm curbed.

"I had very few expectations, probably because I didn't know the TV world that well," she says.

"Plus I had people say, 'Well, pilots rarely go to series.' I figured I'd go do the pilot and be back in New York in a month."

Not only did "Drop Dead Diva" get picked up, it was an instant hit for Lifetime. The recent debut of the third season notched 2.9 million viewers against some very stiff competition on cable, including the season finales of "Game of Thrones" and "The Killing."

"When I started this role, I really wanted to make sure that Deb/Jane had a great sense of humor," says Elliott. "I wanted her to be able to laugh at herself. And I wanted her to have a really big heart."

Maybe it's the show's themes of identity and personal transformation. Maybe it's the show's broad comedic streak. Or maybe it's the random song-and-dance numbers.

But the show has been able to pull in an illustrious and eclectic parade of guest stars, including Liza Minnelli, Tim Gunn, Rosie O'Donnell, Clay Aiken, Wendy Williams, LeAnn Rimes and Jennifer Tilly.

The series appeals to both genders, although men were reluctant to admit their allegiance.

"In the beginning, I would hear, 'Cool show. My wife makes me watch it' or 'My girlfriend has it on in the background,' " says Elliott.

"By Season Two, there was no more justification. Guys would say, 'I love the show.' "