Josh Berman: Behind the CSI Effect, Plus-Size Lawyers and Judge Paula Abdul

Bitter Success Interviews, Lawyer 6 Comments

Ed. note: If you haven’t heard of the Lifetime television series Drop Dead Diva, you probably assume it’s like every epic Lifetime movie you’ve ever (accidentally) seen: Rambling, sappy and a showcase of predatory men. Until last week, we thought the same thing—then we actually watched the show’s first season.

Credited as one of 2009’s best new series, Drop Dead Diva is about “Jane,” a brilliant, plus-size and recently deceased attorney who is revived at the hospital and given a second chance at life. Only problem is that her soul was accidentally replaced with Deb’s, a shallow wannabe model who died around the same time. Forced to deal with being Deb on the inside and Jane on the outside, she tries to carry on Jane’s old life without letting anyone in on her little secret.

That might sound campy—and to an extent, that’s intentional—but in reality, it’s actually a well-written, comedic legal show. Think equal parts Ally McBeal, L.A. Law, The Practice…and Glee. Got that?

The vision behind the show is Stanford Law grad Josh Berman’s, who you wouldn’t expect to have created such a show looking at his sterling resume. In addition to his trinity of graduate degrees (by age 26, he earned a master’s in history, an MBA and a JD), Berman is an accomplished television producer best known for his work on gritty crime dramas.

Forgoing law after graduation, Berman kicked off his career as a writer on a then-unknown CBS series called CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as a story editor the show’s first season. Six years of massive popularity, two Emmy nominations and five People’s Choice Awards later, he exited the show as an Executive Producer to develop his own series for Twentieth Century Fox.

Which is how he ended up helming Drop Dead Diva at Lifetime in the first place. Originally written for Fox, the scrip was dropped during the writers strike of ’07 and later picked up by the female-centric network.

Since Drop Dead Diva premieres its second season on Sunday, June 6th at 9/8c, we interviewed Mr. Berman to find out why he ditched law, how he broke into Hollywood and what the hell is going through the mind of man who casts Paula Abdul as a trial judge.]

Thanks for taking the time, Josh. Let’s start at the beginning with where you’re from and where you went to law school.

I grew up here in Encino, California. I went to Princeton for undergrad, and after a year in Australia studying as a Fulbright scholar, I got my business and law degrees through the MBA/JD program at Stanford, graduating in ‘96.

Did you ever practice law?

I was a Summer Associate at Kirkland & Ellis and Paul Hastings in L.A.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

I didn’t know if I’d ever practice. I come from a family of “get your education first and worry about what you’re going to do later.” I found law school really fun and challenging—my mind was always in overdrive—but my briefs looked more like short stories than briefs. I realized I’m more of a storyteller. I’d sit in my law school classes, and I’d turn every case I was listening to into a story in my head. When I stated Drop Dead Diva, I already had a notebook of cases that I used as inspirations for stories.

I had no social life in grad school and was constantly writing scripts at night. At that point, I thought I wanted to be a feature writer. I’d written a bunch of scripts, and one animated project got optioned. It was great experience, though none of them ever got made.

What did you do after graduation?

One week later, I started as an executive in the creative department at NBC, and I never looked back.

So you never had that moment where you started as a lawyer only to think, “I’ve got to get the f**k out of here.”

Ironically, none of my friends from law school are still practicing law. Maybe I was just in that boat earlier than everyone else.

I think that being a lawyer—especially at Big Firm—can put you in a box. And if you’re creative, you’ll need to find another outlet. So, like with most of my friends, what you need to do is find a way to turn your hobby into a career. I always though of writing as a hobby, and I worked at it. Most of my friends who went from law school to a Big Firm eventually left and went to startups.

It’s definitely hard to make a jump when you’re on that partnership track and the money’s coming in. I’m glad I did it early.

So you said your first job out of Stanford was as an executive at NBC. How’d you land that job?

Because I was a MBA/JD, I had three summers. And one summer I split up by working the first half at Paul Hastings and the second half in the NBC research department. While I was there, I wrote a ratings project called “Hot Switches,” which analyzed how many viewers you’d lose if you went to commercials at the end of a 10:00 program before going into the 11:00 news verses going straight from a program into the news.

After I submitted it, the network president, who at the time was Warren Littlefield, wanted to meet with me to go over the project. He was impressed by how I analyzed it and asked me what I wanted to do when I finished school. So I said I wanted to be in the creative depart.

Had you worked in or with the creative department at all at that point?

No, I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew I wanted to do it. And he offered me a position in the room and reconfirmed it my final year of law school.

So what was the job exactly?

I started as a manager at NBC Studios and was in charge of Saturday-night dramas—one of which, at the time, was Profiler. I loved it, but after a while, I decided I wanted to make the leap over to writing, so I wrote parody of David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal called Allyn McBeal. We shot it on the Profiler set for a couple thousand dollars. [Video below.] It started making the rounds in Hollywood and picked up a lot of attention. Based on that, NBC offered me a writing deal.

“Allyn McBeal” by Josh Berman. Interview continued below video.

Is that when you got a job writing on CSI?

Ironically, my first show was an NBC show called M.Y.O.B., and then I got CSI.

You were hired to write for CSI the first season before the series premiered, right? How’d you get that job?

Right. I wrote a spec script of The Practice to showcase my legal knowledge, and it happened to be structured like CSI [the pilot], which was a coincidence. The executive producers loved the script, and I was there for six years.

You started off on the show as a staff writer?

They gave me the courtesy of beginning as a Story Editor instead of Staff.

So in six years, after bypassing Staff Writer altogether, you went from Executive Story Editor of an unknown series to Executive Producer of the number-one show in America? That’s like shooting through the ranks at Skadden or Cravath to partner in no time flat. How’d that happen?

Being in the right place at the right time. The best thing for my career was that when CBS picked up the show, the network didn’t think it was going to be a hit, so there was no money budgeted for writers. I got to write six scripts the first season and had a lot of extra opportunities because they didn’t have many writers around.

Was the show a hit right out of the box, or was it a slow build of popularity?

It was an instant success that kept getting bigger and bigger. We aired on Friday nights, and they told us if we could just keep 75% of The Fugitive’s ratings [the show that originally preceded CSI] the first year we’d be set. And we beat it the first episode.

Do you ever feel you had a hand in changing the judicial process? Do you feel at all responsible for the whole “CSI Effect” where people say that because so many people watch the show, juries erroneously believe they know everything about forensic science and investigation?

I definitely think juries expect the prosecution to have more evidence now. That’s the negative. The positive is that juries understand forensics a lot better and are more open to believing it. I feel lucky and so proud of my work on CSI.

You’re currently in production on season two of Drop Dead Diva [which Berman created and writes for as an executive producer]. Where did you come up with the idea for this show? Where you trying to think of an interesting take on a legal show, or were you in love with the plus-sized/soul-swapping concept and then thought to set it in the world of law?

What came first for me was the character of “Jane” [played by Brooke Elliott], who is a skinny supermodel who died and came back to life in plus-size lawyer’s body with a great brain. My grandma was most influential in creating Jane. She was always a little bigger in size, but she always carried herself like a supermodel. Her name was Deb, which is why I named the model that in the show. I used the high-concept notion to get where I wanted with Jane.

And beauty in all shapes and sizes is something I really wanted to explore—and how better to explore it than with a legal backdrop? All of the cases at the core are some aspect of human identity and speak to who we are as people and the human condition.

Given that a lot of the shows you’ve worked on, like CSI, Killer Instinct, Bones and Vanished, were more crime-based, is it strange for you to now be doing a series about true inner beauty?

In life, we get pegged by the last job we do. I don’t consider myself to be a dark person. I don’t consider myself a dark writer, but that’s what people think [based on my credits.] When I pitched Diva, people where like, “You want to write what??” You’re only as good as your last project.

It’s worth noting, however, that the show is not on such female-centric networks as Lifetime in other countries. We actually have a pretty split fan base. We have a lot of male fans, and this show speaks to everyone, including men.

So, model Deb’s soul finds its way into attorney Jane’s body, yet Jane retains all of her old legal prowess. Meaning, you have a character with all of the emotions of a physically beautiful model combined with the brains and sensibilities of a plus-size academic. Do you think the prissy, diva-like aspects of Deb give Jane a better advantage as a lawyer than she had before?

I actually do. It dimensional-izes her. I think in law, you win if you can constantly throw your opponents off their game. Opposing counsel knows how to argue with an archetype like Jane—an overweight, overworked lawyer with no social life—but now they’re up against all the brains of Jane combined with the take-no-prisoners attitude of Deb, and it throws opposing counsel off their game.

At the very top of this Sunday’s premiere episode [which airs Sunday, June 6th at 9/8c on Lifetime], there’s a big, choreographed song-and-dance number featuring “Judge Paula Abdul” who presides over a mall food court. Where the hell did her character come from? [Paula Abdul first appeared in season one—see video below.]

We wanted something to represent Jane’s subconscious. So we thought hard about who out there is a real diva—and I mean that in the best possible way. I wanted someone who was not judgmental and had a heart of gold, and she was the perfect one. When we approached her, she watched the very first episode and said yes on the spot.

Interview continued below clip of Judge Paula Abdul from season one.

In addition to “Judge Paula Abdul,” Sunday’s first episode of the second season is sort of a love letter to law. The theme is about returning to the ideals that bring people into the profession in first place: Wanting to help, lawyers being the bearers of truth, etc… Yet you add an interesting twist with a situation in which laws actually prevent Jane from doing the right thing. On what level do you think the legal system suppresses a lawyer’s ability to do right?

I think every society needs rules, and sometimes the rules and principles don’t reach the conclusions their meant to reach in terms of fairness and justice. That’s hopefully why we have judges that will assess the laws of society with enough wiggle room to get a fair and just verdict.

Why would lawyers like watching Drop Dead Diva?

I think lawyers will enjoy how we take real stories and turn them into entertainment. There is also a fantasy element of the show. “I wish the law worked that way.” Lawyers have come up to me and said, “We haven’t enjoyed a legal show that much since Ally McBeal.” And I take that as a real compliment.

Is there any part of you that wishes you would have practiced law at some point?

I love the law. I think it’s my road not taken, but I’m probably a better storyteller than I would’ve been a lawyer. My imagination gets in the way of the rules.

Tomorrow I’m interviewing actor Josh Stamberg who plays “Parker,” the managing partner of the show’s law firm. Do you consider his character to be a Bitter Lawyer?

I don’t think Parker’s bitter because he loves his job. The law firm is his legacy. He’s the dad. He’s the man. He gets excited about cases. We dress him the most colorful of all the characters. He’s the peacock—likes to strut.

Finally, what’s your advice for lawyers who are, say, bitter and think they have what it takes to jump ship and turn their hobby into a sustainable career?

Go for it! If not now, when? If you love being a lawyer, then that’s fantastic and good for you. But if you have a passion for another career, why are you waiting? Now, if you have bills to pay, I understand your hesitation in leaving a good job, so my advice is to work on your hobby at nights, but think of it as an extension of your day job.

A preview of season 2 of Drop Dead Diva, which premieres Sunday, June 6 on Lifetime.

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  • Guano Dubango

    This is one cool dude!  Why don’t you get this dude to do some video’s for this website?  The fat diva show is pretty good also.  She is young enough to bear children. Maybe Josh can work a pregnancy scare into the show, because she has the confidence to go after men, and many men like me will bang women who do not look like models.  I think that when this guy gets older (i.e., in his 30’s) he will have the ability to go far.  Isn’t it great that Bitter Lawyer publicised this dude when he was not that famous?  Go for it, Josh dude!  If you need any legal extras of color, dude, I am your man.  You are my man, dude!

  • Alma Federer

    Hi there!  Now THIS is the kind of man that I DESERVE.  Like me, he is Smart, Independent, and VERY successful.  While he might be a little young for me (I am over 30), I think we could be a VERY good match.  In fact, I think we could be a great MATCH.  Can you tell him about me, and ask him if he is interested in ME?

  • BL1Y

    Chubby lawyer who believes she’s hot shit?  Probably the most realistic thing to hit a legal TV show since Sterling Huddle laid off all its first years.

  • Cheryl

    I’m convinced you guys interview these people just to make me feel like a lazy sack of s**t.

  • Make my hobby dreams come true, Josh!

    Will he accept my slightly less sterling resume and writing samples and hire me for this show already?  I’ve watched every episode and have the BEST idea for a storyline!!  You’re awesome, Mr. Berman.  One day we shall work together.

  • Will

    And I forgot—Sheryl, no one is trying to put you down.  If you’re fat and a lazy pile of crap, you don’t need this website to tell you.  But I would guess you are not because you are intelligent enough to comment here.  You hopefully get some male attention, which is more than many of the silent, fat and lazy ones (other than Alma).