Chip DePalma. If there was any man more qualified to serve as host, The Producers didn’t know one. And it wasn’t because Chip knew anything about the embalming process or the correct temperature for cold chambers or how to console a grieving family, but because his skin stretched tight on his face, making him look like the most beautiful corpse. Tanned, like cowhide. Pat Sajak with better hair plugs.
The show was still in development, but it was set to be a hit with the target eighteen through thirty-four-year-old age bracket according to a series of focus groups. Every episode will be the same: three morticians competing to see who could produce the most elaborately embalmed body in a couple of brief challenges for a $10,000 prize. Maybe they’d have to do up the makeup real smooth or stuff the cheeks with bits of cotton and pump the fluid from the stomach up past the esophagus before rigor mortis set in. There were themed episodes in the works: an ancient Egyptian episode where contestants cure the body in salt and fish for the brain with a long-handled spoon. A Nordic feature where bodies are butterflied—lungs flipped inside out and beating like wings—and sent out to sea on a flaming sailboat. Audiences loved event specials, according to a series of focus groups.
The contestants themselves would follow a basic casting formula of Old Timer, Guy, and Girl, and their personalities would be carefully analyzed in order to ensure maximum intrigue. Typically, Old Timer would appear on the show at the urging of his grown children, who, having noticed their father’s lack of passion for the craft in recent years, encouraged him to submit an audition reel before he wound up on the slab himself. He would know all the time-honored tricks of the trade and work with a hand so calm and methodical it risked sending the guest judges into cardiac arrest. He’d probably show up in a suit and tie. He would be unlikely to take home the prize money, but his renewed motivation to embalm would win over the audience by way of an emotional redemption arc.
Guy, on the other hand, would be way too into his profession. He would preferably in his mid-twenties, fresh out of mortuary school, and would have already produced and branded his own line of biodegradable embalming fluids set to revolutionize the industry. He’d dress in vests and pinstriped pants, and have tattoos that say things. Obnoxious things, inflammatory things. “Born to Raise Hell,” or, if the Producers were really lucky, “I Fix Dead People.” He would come to represent the villain, the one the audience wanted to see sizzle and explode like a beer in a bonfire. Maybe he’d win; it didn’t matter, either way, he’d start a fight with Old Timer or Chip or Girl, and the inevitable fallout would mean ratings gold.
Girl would be a mixed bag. She might be really into STEM. She might be doing this for women everywhere or her fatherless daughter or on the dying wish of her mother whose dream it was to go to mortuary school. Of course, the mother never had the opportunity to go to school, due in part to the rigid gender roles of her era, but Girl was here, she was doing it. She’d be dumpy looking, with adult braces or hair that hung in thick, greasy strips. She’d wear an ill-fitting patterned dress—probably with fruit on it, or hundreds of butterflies—and ballet flats and too much jewelry. She was no one’s wet dream, but she was competent, and she’d spout off niche facts about the decaying human body in that annoying, quirky way typical of young women with something to prove.
Prior to the first episode, the stage would be swept clean and polished, the concrete floors in the studio stacked with rows and rows of foldable bleachers. Chip would be in the green room having his face powdered, while the contestants would be in some sort of holding room. Holding pen? Three separate rooms? The Producers were still working out the logistics of whether the contestants should meet prior to shoot, or if the shock of being thrown onto set with two other strangers might make for a better viewing experience.
The corpses would be chilled in the blast freezer next to craft services’ giant vats of cottage cheese and beef stock. They would likely be cast-offs from death row prisoners or donated bodies that science didn’t want. The corpses would remain in the freezer till the first commercial break, after pre-competition and guest judge interviews, after a series of ads about phone plans or hotdogs, with children dancing around a big truck and singing about the joys of protein. They would be wheeled out on metal tables, blood pooling behind their kneecaps and their spines, and lit up bright under a spotlight that would track them from stage left to center stage.
The first episode would be electric. Chip DePalma would follow the corpses on stage quickly—the lights would no doubt be very hot and a studio audience would likely not appreciate the smell of warming flesh—dressed in an extravagant blue velvet suit (his fashion choice, no doubt) and say something like, “Can these morticians take these cadavers from rot to hot? Today we’ll find out, on Drop Dead Gorgeous!”
A screen would cut away to the contestants talking about their histories in the biz: Guy with his spiky hair and the type of attitude that says, “I ride a motorcycle,” and Girl discussing her father’s concerns over her profession—would she ever find a man? Old Timer would probably mention his kids’ encouragement. The interview would cut away to his audition reel, which would feature him in his embalming room replacing blood with embalming fluids and explaining the use of all the doohickies and doodads in the jars on the shelf behind him. “Now, this is what we might use if the body’s been in a traumatic accident,” he’d say. “I want to treat the body with respect, so I’ll keep it shrouded when I’m not working on it.”
On Drop Dead Gorgeous there would be no shroud. Audiences didn’t want shroud. They wanted body: rotting body, fresh body, body so stiffened and firm they could take it out to Rocky Neck and use it as a surfboard. Maybe the Producers wouldn’t show that part of Old Timer’s interview. Bad press.
Once the interviews had been completed, the screen would part and the contestants would be introduced to their respective bodies. The first episode would establish the basic episodic formula through a common death—victims of car accidents, in this case—and the car accidents would have been carried out by Department Interns pre-filming so the bodies would arrive on stage broken up pretty badly. What was pretty bad? The Producers weren’t sure, but they imagined heavy bruising and dislocated shoulders.
Chip would say, “Did you know drunk driving accounts for ten thousand deaths a year?”
The audience would weep in unison.
“Well, we’ve got three of those deaths right here tonight, and three of America’s top morticians are going to transform them into casket-ready form. Who’s excited?”
The audience would cheer in unison.
The first challenge of the episode would be a speed run to see who could prep their body for makeup and outfit the quickest. They’d have two hours to drain the blood and puncture the organs and wriggle the aneurysm hook around all the veins and pump every crevice full of Restoratone mixed with dye, which, from the Producers’ brief research into the subject, made the body look alive and fresh like it could sit up and ask for a glass of orange juice.
Contestants would then race away with their bodies on the metal tables—Guy probably shoving his way past the other two—and enter soundproof tile chambers set up for the task. Soundproofing was an essential part of this round because the Producers didn’t want contestants knowing how far along their competitors were in the process. When one of them finish (and, let’s be honest, it would probably be Guy, maybe Girl) they’d press a big red button and lights would flash in the other two chambers and a voice would say, “One body preserved,” intense, throbbing music would play.
“What do you make of Guy’s technique through that round?” Chip would say from the main stage. He’d make his way to the panel of judges—industry experts—and they would discuss Guy’s precision with the suture.
“Well, I think we’re seeing a real competitor in Guy,” one of the guest judges might say. “He’s quick, he’s clean, and what? He’s been doing this for two years? He’s a threat.”
There’d be some witty banter. Chip might say something like, “Safe to say you’d let him do your mother?” and the guest judge would say, “I’d let him do a lot more than that!”
Cue the laughs.
Probably, Old Timer would not finish his body. He’d get close, leaving the audience chewing their collective fingernails till they were nothing more than bloody moons. He’d be the first out.
“I’m sorry,” Chip would say. “But your cadaver left the judges feeling stone cold. Your work is not Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
He’d send Old Timer off with a firm handshake and a slow walk to the back of the stage for post-interviews. Old Timer would gush about how grateful he was for the opportunity to reconnect with the art form.
A commercial break would feature a steep discount on life insurance when you enroll the whole family. Alarm systems. Turkey grinders, buy one get one half off.
The final round would involve a series of styling decisions intended to make the body look presentable enough for an open casket. Fuckable? Was that insensitive? Did it matter? Sex sold, and everyone watching probably had the pre-conceived notion that morticians were sexually deviant in that unspoken way.
The chambers would be gutted and filled with racks of clothing and shelves of thick, plasticky makeup, and the contestants would have another two hours to prep and dress. The probable remaining contestants, Guy and Girl, would have a hard time with this round because neither one knew the first thing about good taste. They could do makeup, sure, but when asked to dress a body in a style reminiscent of who that body was in life, they’d be clueless. Guy had frosted tips. Girl wore holographic cat earrings. The Producers longed for crisp gray suits and navy dresses, but in all likelihood, they’d get mismatched plaids and biker jackets.
There would be no lifelines. There would be no stylist assistant or phone-a-friend option, so Guy and Girl would be on their own. Chip would pop into the chambers briefly to check on their progress.
“So, tell me what you’ve got going on here,” he’d say to Girl.
She’d explain a bit about her thought process, envisioning the dead body in front of her as a family man who worked with his hands. A carpenter or plumber or electrician instead of a discarded prisoner scraped off the road by Department Interns.
“I want to really emphasize the red-blooded Americanness of this corpse, so I’ve gone with a classic Levi’s, suspenders, and flannel combination.”
Chip would nod, silent.
“For the makeup, to offset the bruising around the brow, I’ve applied an orange correcting foundation and blended that out into the orbital bone.”
Chip would say, “Very nice,” or, “I see,” or “Good work,” thank Girl for her time, then pop into Guy’s chamber.
Guy, early on, would be established as all rock ‘n’ roll. His character soundtrack overlaid with the sounds of dogs barking, his camera angles orchestrated in such a way as to make him look taller and more threatening than he probably was. If he turned out to be the winner, the Producers would request some sort of triumphant B-roll of Guy marching around the concrete stage, fist-pumping and giving the studio audience high fives in an attempt to mitigate his unlikability factor. Either way, the chamber would be chaos.
“Car crash? More like victim of a bombing. Guy, what’s going on in here?” Chip would be instructed to say something inflammatory to get Guy stoked up, to get him hot.
“You know, Chip, the process of preparing a body for the wake and the funeral is a messy process. Maybe if you spent a little more time reading and a little less time self-tanning, you’d know this.”
Maybe in other iterations of the show, there’d be a fistfight after some more aggressive back-and-forth. Chip might whisper something like, “You little prick,” and Guy might swing at him. This moment would be slowed down and gray scaled for dramatic effect, and the Producers would have the Marketing Team use that clip in all future promotional materials in order to illustrate the passionate undertaking that was mortuary science.
“Anyways, Chip, I imagine my guy was a vampire in life but his car accident happened when he got hit head-on by a semi-carrying garlic.”
“So, in order to cast him as a modern vampire, I’ve dressed him in black and used a fine pressed powder on the skin. The fangs are molded from Play-Doh. I’ve opted to leave a majority of the bruising in order to maximize the living dead factor and I think it’s pretty badass.”
“Pretty badass,” Chip would say. “Well, we’ll see what the judges think when we return to Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
The Producers were unsure who would win, episode to episode, but planned to have the ladies in the Accounting Department operate as bookies on the down-low so they could bet each time.
The first episode would be solidly split down the middle—half the staff rooting for Guy, half for Girl. Guy’s decision to maintain the bruises on his corpse’s face was risky and childish, but Girl’s idea of her body as a hardworking, blue-collar American was predictable and reeked of nationalism in a way that might encourage bloggers everywhere to write long think pieces about the problem of gender disparity in national trade unions. The Producers didn’t want that on their hands. Or maybe they did. Controversy meant headlines. Headlines meant viewership. Maybe, at a later date, Old Timer would make it through to the second round and, with his odds of winning so slim, one of the Assistant Producers feeling particularly lucky that week could make enough money in the pool to take the Cameramen out to a nice meal. Maybe Chip DePalma would win an Emmy for his ability to create drama on the spot, or better, the Producers themselves, for their high concept bid into the reality competition show sector. There’d be awards, surely, hundreds of them, and after-parties with hot young women offering champagne bottles in chilled metal buckets, and small crab cakes on beds of lettuce. Drop Dead Gorgeous would be huge, the Producers knew it. They were about to make a killing.
A graduate of CCSU and current student in the University of Alabama’s MFA program, Kathryn Fitzpatrick has work featured or forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, Twin Pies Literary, and elsewhere. She tweets at @avgbuttcrumb.