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Could I Be Falling For "Ugly Betty"?

There are some things that are so rare that some are willing to search an entire world for them. The Holy Grail, a dodo egg, the mythical phoenix.

In the 2006-07 season, that elusive item would be a freshman drama that's still on the air, considering the sharpness (not to mention the well-oiled frequency of use) of the cancellation guillotine the networks employed this year.

One of the few new series that managed to not only sneak by Madame Guillotine, but to prosper, is the US adaptation of Ugly Betty. I had managed to avoid Ugly Betty for a few reasons: (A) I found the pilot, which I viewed back in May, to have been a little messy, an odd hodgepodge of comedy, melodrama, and outright sap, and (B) it airs directly opposite NBC's comedy crown jewel, The Office, and as any longtime reader of Televisionary knows, if there's one thing that I adore, it's The Office.

But that all changed. Call karma, call it kismet, or call it the tempting hand of an 11-episode Ugly Betty marathon on ABC Family on New Year's Eve. In any event, I found myself watching the second episode of Betty, and then the third, and before I knew it I had caught up completely with the Mode-styled mayhem of Betty, Daniel, Wilhelmina, Amanda, and Marc. I had become a Betty convert.

Let me begin by saying that I had underestimated just how funny this series was. I have a certain suspicion of series that bill themselves as one-hour comedies (ahem, Desperate Housewives, I am looking squarely at you over there), but there's a lot within Betty's rarefied world that causes me to laugh out loud on occaison, especially when it involves the sycophantic Marc (Michael Urie), the manipulative Amanda (Becki Newton), the bitchy Wilhelmina (Vanessa L. Williams), or Betty's adorable nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato).

Episodes written by Marco Pennette, recently officially installed as Betty's showrunner (and keeper of the comedy flame), have a certain spark and manage to blend the comedic with the ridiculous, yet still have a certain way of keeping the characters engaging and sympathetic. To me, the only flaw Betty has is a tendency to sometimes go for the sappy or the way-too-melodramatic-because-it's-played-so-straight.

Case in point: the saga of the immigration problem faced by Betty's dad Ignacio (Tony Plana), which manages to be both maudlin and over-the-top at the same time. I had a sinking feeling when we learned that he had been using someone else's social security number and I was completely displeased to learn that the reason he did so was in order to escape Mexico after murdering a man, his employer, to protect his future wife. It's a little too on the nose and a little too much like the telenovelas that Ignacio loves to watch for my taste.

Same too with the mystery behind former Mode editor-in-chief Fey's death. While I love the scenes between the Masked Woman and Wilhelmina (and the constant telephone calls), the storyline involving Bradford Meade (Alan Dale of The OC and Lost) falls completely flat as he plays it far too straight, instead of fully embracing the ludicrousness of the situation. His scenes with his informant Steve (Stelio Savante) were painful to watch, especially as Dale seemed completely ill-at-ease with the storyline and Savante's acting was, well, not the best on television.

So that's what doesn't work for me. But what does work? America Ferrera's performance as the titular Betty, for one; she's never afraid to make Betty vulnerable yet sympathetic and despite a simply tragic wardrobe that would make Tim Gunn vomit in rage, one can't help but root for this plucky girl who is never afraid to express what's on her mind (though, Betty, how could you have turned down the job with Sofia Reyes?). And since the pilot, Eric Mabius has gone a long way to make Daniel Meade a three-dimension character who is more than just a womanizing playboy. I adore Ashley Jensen (Extras) and wish that the show's producers would give her character, Christina, more to do than seem to live inside that cavernous Mode wardrobe.

Betty's sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz) is a little too cliched for my taste, but she's at least been given something more to do lately with the dreaded immigration storyline... and the fact that she kicked Justin's dad Santos out of their house right after Thanksgiving made me reevaluate Hilda a little bit.

Wilhelmina Slater is one of the most gorgeously bitchy television creations in recent years; the Thanksgiving episode in which she attempted to cook a turkey (and called friend Martha Stewart for guidance) was priceless, as was the camera shot from inside the turkey's, er, cavern. Vanessa L. Williams plays Wilhelmina with a hide as tough as diamonds and the inclusion of estranged daughter Nico (Jowharah Jones) added some unexpected tenderness to Wilhelmina's character.

That said, I reserve a special kind of love for the comic pairing of Marc and Amanda, who manage to steal the show every time they're on screen. In "Fey's Sleigh Ride," it was the delicious pairing of these two with straight man Betty as they investigate (and try to cover up) who leaked the concept for Mode's Christmas layout to a rival magazine (hint: it was Fat Carol); in "The Lyin', the Watch and the Wardrobe," it was the *hilarious* visual gag of Marc dressed up as Betty (complete with Guadalajara poncho) for Halloween; in "Four Thanksgivings and a Funeral," it's Marc and Amanda's Thanksgiving celebration as they try on couture gowns and bitchily watch the parade from Wilhelmina's office window before making contact with the Masked Woman. If anyone can blow the lid off of the mystery behind the mysterious masked woman (who will, boys and girls, be played by Rebecca Romjin when the bandages come off), it's this fashion-fixated Scooby Gang.

So, yes, I've succumbed to Betty's ugly-is-the-new-beautiful charms. While it's not going to get me to switch off The Office (I'd sooner move Heaven and Earth than do that), I do wait with a certain sweet anticipation to catch up with the staffers of Mode magazine on Thursday nights. Plus, given the fact that nearly every new drama has disappeared faster than free swag at a fashion magazine, I'm happy to have found a one-hour dramedy (or, hell, comedy) that will at least make it through the season and manages to charm, entertain, and amuse me as much as Ugly Betty does. And that, gentle readers, is a very pretty thing indeed.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The King of Queens/Two and a Half Men (CBS); Friday Night Lights (NBC); Beauty & the Geek (CW; 8-10 pm); According to Jim/According to Jim (ABC); Watch Over Me (MyNet)

9 pm: Criminal Minds (CBS); Deal or No Deal (ABC); The Knights of Prosperity/In Case of Emergency (ABC); Watch Over Me (MyNet)

10 pm: CSI: New York (CBS); Medium (NBC); Primetime: Basic Instinct (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Beauty & the Geek.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for Beauty & the Geek. It might not be the most original or thought-provoking reality TV series on the air, but this "social experiment" from "Ashton Kutcher" always makes me chuckle. Here's hoping there's another Richard lurking amid the geeks this time around.

10 pm: Top Chef on Bravo.

Bravo's culinary competition Top Chef *finally* returns with new episodes. On tonight's episode, chefs must create a seven course dinner inspired by... something "shocking" for Debi Mazur and guests. Meanwhile Ilan and Marcel clash, Ilan tells Marcel to "keep making [his] foams and go cry in the corner," and several of the chefs are accused of committing a culinary sin, leading Marcel to yet again arrogantly lash out at the judges. I'm counting the hours!

Comments

Anonymous said…
Yay - you have finally seen the light!! I totally agree re: the funny. I laugh out loud so often with that show. I find that show to be such a treat.

I also agree re: immigration story. Could have been better, or not done at all.

I like the mystery of faye and the bandaged woman, but not the Alan Dale stuff. Gah, he is SO stiff on every show.

And Beauty and the Geek - glad to find another watcher. I do enjoy the show. I didn't think I would, becuase the initial commercials made me think it would be mean spirited, but it's not.
Vance said…
Woohoo! Welcome to the bandwagon! You pretty much have it dead on. Fey and immigration, meh, but the rest is all sparkly hilarious though they really need to give Ashley Jensen more lines.
I thought the "Ugly Betty" pilot was Cute...and not much more. Happily, it's become much more than that. While the show definitely slides into melodrama at times, the fabulous supporting cast ensures humor in every scene that they're in (Marc, Amanda, Wilhelmina etc). I'm very happy to hear that Marco Pennette is taking over as showrunner because his episodes are clearly the strongest.
Anonymous said…
I'm quite confused by some of your contradictory comments about the acting on Ugly Betty but you seem like another out of work writer or actor who can only make oneself feel better by taking shots at others. You mock Alan Dale's acting. Dale is cool, sharp and incredibly believable in his scenes and Stelio Savante does a great job playing the private investigator opposite him-stop watching the show when you're stoned and maybe you'll smell the coffee for what it is.
Jace Lacob said…
Stelio Savante... is that you???

By the way, I'm quite gainfully employed in the entertainment industry and hardly an "out of work actor or writer."

And, um, regarding your other comment, Australia and New Zealand are two separate countries. Are you sure *you're* not the one who's stoned?
Anonymous said…
Huge Betty fan here. After the Globes last night I'm fishing through every Betty blog I can find and I read everything you have to say about the best series on tv. How can you say that about America Ferrara? You be dissing my peeps now. She totally deserves to win. The category is "Best actress musical or comedy" not funniest actress comedy or musical. So pay homage respect where its due. America is doing an amazing job as Betty and she gave the best speech. And the category is 'Best comedy or musical' not best sitcom. This show is unique there is nothing else like it. And the supporting cast is great. They help carry a show with no huge household names other than Vanessa. I actually enjoyed the scenes that involve Dale and Savante because it keeps the Devil Wears Prada stuff in the offices honest. Dale makes great choices andyour suggestion about him having more fun with it is such an obvious choice. What he's doing is more interesting. Savante's cute and to the point. What's not to like? Did you notice the reaction by the cast members of Desperate Housewives when Betty won last night? They were sour grapes like how dare Betty win? Just like you. All sour grapes? Don't know something great when you see it. Fans and critics alike love this show so you best give this cast their props cause you know America Ferrara and Dale, Savante and the rest of the cast were living it up after the Globes win last night. I toasted America Ferrara and Betty last night.

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