Perhaps, like me, when you saw the teasers for ABC’s new show “Ugly Betty,” you thought you’d be getting “Less Than Perfect” at a magazine rather than a television station: a cute sitcom wherein the ugly duckling teaches those around her the value of loving oneself while spewing zippy one-liners.
But “Betty” is much more than that, and that’s both good and bad. Starring America Ferrara, Hollywood’s go-to gal for the empowered Latina, anti-waif–see her tremendous breakthrough performance in 2002’s “Real Women Have Curves”–the show is an almost mind-boggling blend of genres: Think “Sex and the City” meets “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Cinderella” meets “American Family,” all wrapped up in a possible murder mystery/conspiracy.
Betty Suarez, a smart but homely gal from Queens, is first rejected for a job at a magazine publishing company based on her looks, but then is hired by the Rupert Murdoch-esque owner of the company to act as his son’s assistant. (It could be argued that Betty is “ugly’ only by Hollywood’s standards–i.e., glasses and braces make a girl absolutely abhorent.)
The son, Daniel, was recently elevated to editor-in-chief after the death (possibly, murder) of an Anna Wintouresque EIC. He has a penchant for sleeping with any good-looking female that comes within 10 feet. Long story short, Betty is finally humilated by Daniel enough that she quits, but he asks her back, since she’s got an idea could win him the cosmetics ad campaign the magazine so desperately needs. At the end, Daniel has gained new found respect for Betty and the magazine gets the ad.
Although the show seems to be an amalgam of other shows and themes–rich vs. poor, beauty vs. beast–it is decidely different than anything else on TV. On the surface, the production feels more like a movie than a television show, the sets and location shots are fantastic, and some of the material is racy enough to be on the big screen (oral sex at the office anyone?). And while the pilot episode introduces far too many distracting storylines for an hour-long show–Betty’s family dynamics, her ex-boyfreind dumping her, her friendship with the sassy British gal, her relationship with Daniel, the evil botoxed Vanessa Williams who may be in cahoots with the not-so-dead ex-EIC and the fact that our magazine mogul may have paid to have had her offed in the first place–I still was pulling for Betty and her determination to land her dream job and be the person she knew herself to be. Thanks to Ferrara’s humanizing, never degrading portrayal, Betty never comes across as a victim.
Still, I’m not quite set on adding “Betty” to my regular viewing schedule just yet; but I will be giving it another try. One way that ABC could ensure that I stay tuned is to avoid having Betty whip off the glasses, lose the braces, and pluck her eyebrows; don’t let the ugly duckling turn into a swan. For network TV, that would be as original and as brave as Betty herself.