Sunday, January 14, 2007

TV: Ugly Betty, Beautiful TV

In a fall season with relatively few breakouts, ABC's Ugly Betty stands out. Standing out frequently means standing out as a bulls eye for a number of people to take pot shots at. Which is why, recently, a British gas bag writing for a British paper felt the need to share her belief that it was among the ugliest shows to waft across the Atlantic. Those who remember Benny Hill might point out that the stench wafts both ways.

Her biggest beef was that the show wasn't following the fashion scene -- apparently she's never seen Just Shoot Me. Others who seem to miss the point zero in on the fact that neither Betty nor the actress playing her, America Ferrera, are ugly. Apparently those wags wouldn't be happy unless Mimi from The Drew Carey Show was transplanted into the lead.

Criticisms like the above miss the obvious. At it's heart (and this was true of the original version in Columbia, Betty la fea) it is a Cinderella story. For non-readers, think Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries and a host of other films. Note we said "films." In TV you can get 'reality' 'makeover' shows and a host of other things, you don't get the ugly ducking turning into a swan as the lead in scripted shows. In fact, like the aforementioned Mimi, the looks are pretty much set in scripted shows and someone dubbed 'ugly' is kept around for just that.

This omission is rather surprising when you consider (a) TV recycles everything and (b) films with the Cinderella storyline often do very well at the box office. It's only not surprising when you consider how often TV cups the macho, year after year.

The Cinderella story or the tale of the Ugly Ducking speak to people who hope that someone will see them for what they have on the inside. For women, their popularity may also stem from the freakish period known as puberty when a perfectly workable body begins shifting and sprouting.

It's also true that many women, even extremely beautiful women, tend to rate themselves lower on the looks scale than others would. (In polls where women and men are asked to rate themselves, men must be rating themselves much higher than they deserve or else the polling of males takes place on a cattle call for a Calvin Klein underwear shoot.)

Betty la fea was very popular and has been remade in countless countries. At one point, NBC toyed with the idea of making it into a half-hour sitcom. That was the most serious interest the show (which has been a hit everywhere) ever had from American networks. Until . . .

Salma Hayek. You knew there had to be a woman involved otherwise it would be Universal Bud Bundy Gets a Gun or some of the other crap the networks toss out yearly. The American version differs in a number of ways. First off, the backdrop has been changed. Betty works in the magazine industry, not for a fashion designer. Second, humor is emphasized in the hour long version. Third, the setting is America.

That last point is important and Hayek's behind the scene driving of the show is as well because, while the networks toyed with the idea of launching an American version over nearly a decade, it wasn't always a given that the lead character would be a Latina. In some attempts to sell the show, she was turned into an Anglo.

Not only has the character been kept a Latina, her parents were both immigrants. Her mother is dead and her father, Ignacio Suarez (amazingly well played by Tony Plana), currently struggles to be granted citizenship since he and his late wife were undocumented immigrants who came to the US in the 70s. If you're thinking the network looked at the massive immigration rights protests of last year and thought, "We should work that in" -- well you are naive. Again, credit Hayek.

There have been very few TV shows on the big three with Latinos or Latinas as the lead -- rather strange when one of the most successful sitcoms of all time co-starred Cuban Desi Arnez.

Of the few attempts, the number that lasted more than one season is even smaller (Chico & the Man and The George Lopez Show are two).

It would be easy to argue (and some foolishly have) that of course the lead needed to be a Latina because the show is based upon a successful telenova. Those making that argument must be under the impression that Bo Derek, Catherine Oxenberg and Tatum O'Neal are Latinas. Hayek, a producer with a strong track record (Frida, In the Time of the Butterflies, etc.) and an actress of considerable talent (and Oscar nominated for Best Actress for Frida), guaranteed that the networks would be interested and that viewers would see something other than the standard masculine storyline that's always supposed to play 'universal' but rarely does. You can't talk about what ended up onscreen without giving credit to Hayek who committed to this show and steered it.

America Ferrera is endearing as Betty. In your standard TV show that would mean she's nothing but a sideliner cheerleading some male. Ugly Betty is her story and, like a friend who can't see how good looking she is, audiences stick up for her because her talents go far beyond endearing. It helps that she also wants. Her wants include happiness for her family (father, sister and *nephew*) and success in her field. In most versions, Betty's in love with her boss and ends up with him. That may prove to be the case with this show as well; however, since it's not a telanova (which conclude their storylines in a matter of weeks), that's up in the air at this point.

Betty's boss, most recently, was Daniel (played by Eric Mabius) and not only did she leave his employment (MODE magazine) to go to work for another magazine (MYW), she also did her part to fix him up with the magazine's editor Sofia Reyes (played by Hayek). Many who've weighed in on the show have complained that Betty isn't "ugly," they've rarely bothered to note she's also not a doormat.

She's considered "ugly" (or awkward) because of the work setting. Like Maya (Laura San Giacomo) in Just Shoot Me, Betty's not been about high glamour. Those who don't get the fact that the Betty's being judged by the standards of her work setting must have missed Vanessa Williams.

Williams plays Wilhelmina Slater who is the creative director of MODE and wants to be its editor (Daniel's job). Those who remember the publicity build up Diahann Carroll got when she joined Dynasty (bragging that she'd be playing "the first Black bitch" on a primetime soap) probably also remember how quickly Carroll's character blanded out in her first full season. Carroll holds a record for Julia, but Williams achieves what was promised (but never delivered) on Dynasty. That's because Williams has a found a role she can build. She does that via stance and movement as much as any dialogue her character's given. Those who remember the disaster that was the Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson team up of Partners in Crime may remember the show's first episode which featured Williams playing an incredibly underwritten part (at least she got an US magazine cover out of it). Even then, fresh off being stripped of her Miss America title, Williams planted herself so firmly that it was obvious she had talent.

In the years since, she's often achieved but the opportunities have been few. A gorgeous woman with a flair for comedy, a way with dialogue and a very (little noted) physical sense of acting should have been cast in lead in after lead in films and should have raked up at least as many shots at TV leads as Geena Davis. That didn't happen. But one entrance by Williams in the show makes up for everything she's suffered through in the past (most recently playing a cruise director type role on a UPN tragedy).

There are people who understimate the talent required for this sort of role. As though a Donna Mills, Joan Collins, Ana-Alicia or Heather Locklear pops up on every primetime soap. They don't. You've got to have serious talent to play those larger than life scenes without making yourself the joke. Williams has that talent and also has the talent to pull off the quieter scenes in a recent storyline that found Wilhelmina ready to embrace something other than the world she grew up (she's the daughter of a US senator in addition to her work at MODE).

The show has a strong cast and a fast pace. In the regular cast, stands out include Ashley Jensen (as Betty's friend Christina), Alan Dale (as Bradford Meade, the publisher of MODE, MYW and other magazines), and Ana Ortiz (as Betty's sister Hilda). Even the guest spots are cast strong (example, Judith Light as Claire Meade, mother of Daniel and wife of Bradford).

The show's weakest spot is Eric Mabius who plays Daniel. Though People magazine finds him to be one of the sexiest men alive, ourselves, we're unconvinced. He bears an uncanny resemblence to the comedian Carrot Top and his too-wounded-for-this-world performance struck us as sappy. The only exception to that were his scenes with Salma Hayek's Sofia which provided a spark that was otherwise missing (whether proposing to her or when informed, by her, early in the show, that she wasn't wearing panties as she climbed on top of his shoulders).

If he does turn out to be Betty's Prince Charming and he returns to the flat performances, we won't see that as much of a happy ending. In fact, too many scenes with his character could turn the show into Bland Daniel.

(For those who don't get just how bland Mabius can be, in 1999 he played Joshua Jackson's closeted jock boyfriend in Cruel Intentions, the one Ryan Phillipe walks in on. Scenes that should have sparked instead sputtered out. He's too stiff for camp.)

We're not too worried about the ending because this is a show that viewers will dictate. All it's going to take is one strong actor who sparks off America Ferrera (the Mr. Big to her Carrie) to have audiences demanding that Betty do better than Daniel. And again, the fact that Betty was fixing Daniel up with Hayeck's Sofia (before she learned Sofia was using him) hints that this Betty has yet to stumble across her Prince Charming.

If you haven't checked out the show yet, what are you likely to stumble across? An hour long show that mixes comedy, drama and melodrama. It's funnier than Melrose Place and it doesn't suffer from the attempts to show, for instance, how deep Jake or Michael or any other male is. In fact, unlike the supposedly female driven shows such as Commander-in-Chief, Alias and Moronic Mars, one of the things you may first notice is how different a show feels when the female lead isn't also the token female in the cast.
But there's only one lead character. As strong as Williams is, and she's quite strong in her role, this is Betty's story. And chances are, it will involve you. Things like Betty and Christina's trip to Boylesque (a male strip club) to get the dirt on Sofia come up quickly and keep the pace moving. (Translation, there are no clip jobs that MyTV tries to pass off during the week as "new" episodes of their telenovas.) When things move to a slower pace, it's due to a strong performance you want to savor (such as Hayek or Judith Light as their reoccuring characters).

From the high camp of the goings on at MODE to the quieter moments of Betty with her family, the show shifts tones and moods quickly and does so in a way that doesn't feel forced or "very special episode" like. No, Betty isn't ugly and no one in her family would call her that. But the show grasps that women do not live on merely one plane. Betty's transitioning from plane to plane, level to level, throughout the day and that's what makes "the bitches" (as Christina calls them) at MODE and their treatment of and attitudes toward Betty all the more complex. If Betty truly was "ugly" (e.g. Mimi), the show would be the standard one-note portrayal of a woman that the networks trot out year after year. Ugly Betty's quite a bit more complex and a lot more enjoyable.

ADDED: Ugly Betty airs Thursdays on ABC. If you already enjoy the show: HEADS UP, YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS IT THIS THURSDAY.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }