Television is the opiate of the masses. Surfing channels these days, we see the screen jump from images of skinny models bickering, to bedraggled people on a desert island, to co-eds living together as they have been for the past ten years. They don’t call it a guilty pleasure for nothing.
At first, the shiny interior of Mode magazine, the fictional landscape of Ugly Betty, fits into the model of the stereotypical television show. Chrome and without angles, bathed in a blue palette, it creates the perfect atmosphere of calm and cool. Spaceship-like, it is alien and soulless – haute-couture at its loftiest.
Then in walks Betty.
The title character, Betty Suarez, is laughingly out of place at Mode. Clearly not a size two—sporting both adult braces and glasses, and covered in a rainbow poncho—she wears her personality on her sleeve. While we expect her role in the television show to be significant, little does the audience anticipate her importance to the magazine. It turns out, Ugly Betty is anything but bête.
The story goes mostly like this: Betty is foisted upon Mode editor-in-chief, Daniel Meade, by his father in hopes that her unattractiveness will keep him in line. Despite open hostility from day one – “I just found my new screensaver,” quips another assistant after taking Betty’s photo – she quickly proves her worth with a few brilliant saves in times of distress.
The unconventional fish out of water story is what most critics and fans are raving about. By now, you’ve probably heard of this show if only because it immediately precedes Grey’s Anatomy on Thursdays. It’s also known as the spin-off of Yo Soy Betty La Fea, a Colombian telenovela that’s already been exported to several European countries.
“Ugly is the new beautiful,” rings ABC’s slogan to promote the show. The Washington Post perhaps most accurately summed up its theme: “Mostly, it’s getting even with anyone who ever rejected your proposal of lunch, dinner, a movie or marriage because they thought you weren’t good enough.” New York Magazine praised the show for its smart, satirical analysis of the fashion industry, remarking that “Ugly Betty flourishes because of its well-calibrated tone: the borderline-ludicrous haute outfits of her preening co-workers, who look as if they’ve stumbled off a David LaChapelle photo shoot.” Entertainment Weekly went as far as to call the show revolutionary for its daring to make a character as unattractive as Betty Suarez its title character.
Now, six months later with two Golden Globes under its belt and high Nielsen ratings, Ugly Betty seems like it has fulfilled its prophecy of the show that is bringing ugly back. But does this mean that this television show is revolutionary? In a word: no.
The themes that earn Ugly Betty praise also make up its biggest weaknesses, because with them, the show risks becoming trite and corny. There are already plenty of shows that devote themselves to preaching about the importance of family, including some that are not recently cancelled shows about families of seven. (Yes, Gilmore Girls still plods along.) There are also plenty of shows about being true to yourself, most of which ostensibly target the under-seven set.
Even Ugly Betty’s setting is unoriginal. Producers, hoping to ride the wave of The Devil Wears Prada’s success, launched dramas and reality shows about the world of fashion, including Bo Derek’s Fashion House, which lasted a total of three months.
Nonetheless, Ugly Betty is still fresh, not for its revelation that it is what’s on the inside that matters, but for its often overlooked exploration of uncomfortable subjects. For starters, there are all the usual problems that prevent domestic tranquility in television dramas: alcoholism amongst the rich and single motherhood amongst the less well-off. Then there are the real shockers.
There’s Betty’s adolescent nephew, Justin. His hobbies include making “jazz hands,” commenting on Betty’s fashion sense, and performing the opening act of Hairspray in a stalled subway car. Television audiences have long been ready for storylines about gay people, but a gay eleven year old? Also in Betty’s family is her father, Ignacio. He surprises his family and the audience when he announces that he fled to America after murdering his late wife’s ex-husband. But we love him so much by this point that he’s easily forgiven. Most surprising is the recent development that Daniel Meade’s “dead” brother, Alex, is actually alive. Alex is also now Daniel’s sister.
But neither the touchy-feely Betty nor the hip, subversive Betty is the biggest draw of audiences. The show’s addictive qualities stem from voyeuristic peek into two unknown worlds simultaneously.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The little part of us that revels in schadenfreude perks up when Betty shows up to the holiday party in a sweatshirt replete with miniature light bulbs. As much as we enjoy Betty’s family life, we like sneaking into a household with a real live illegal immigrant even more. And surprise – he’s just like any other TV dad, supportive and proud.
Scores of fan-sites focus on the actors and actresses, not the show itself. The story of America Ferrera, the actress who plays Betty, mirrors that of her character in the sense that she is not a size zero in a size-zero industry, Ferrera is unmistakably beautiful beneath the fake eyebrows and braces. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast includes some famous names like Vanessa Williams and Allen Dale of OC renown. Shorter stints with Selma Hayek and Lucy Liu clearly attract audiences on star power alone. Talk of characters and the plot dominate forums. One discussion on HYPERLINK “http://www.uglybetty-tv.com” www.uglybetty-tv.com asks the question, “OK…so who do YOU want betty to be with?”
Others still watch for the fashion. A recent New York Times article reports the popularity of Gucci’s 85th anniversary bag thanks to Ugly Betty’s launch pad.
When settling down for a restful evening near the end of the week, issues of class, race, and gender inequality are the furthest thing from the average American’s mind.
This isn’t to say that Ugly Betty has failed in its intentions or has low ambitions. Rather, its genius lies in exposing the audience to something without their knowledge. Most, while watching for the laughs or fashions, also become acclimated to people normally left out of television – the fashion-challenged, the transgender, and the illegal immigrant.
In any case, Ugly Betty has certainly fulfilled its duty to Disney stockholders. It is one of the most successful new shows of the 2006-2007 season. As a result, Ugly Betty does have the ability to revolutionize television in its tackling of hush-hush issues. Right now, the show’s producers have left themselves much leeway. They have a choice between making Ugly Betty a dramedy about an ugly duckling that leaves issues of race and class in the subtext or making some of the serious discussions a larger part of the television show.
While the latter choice would be truly revolutionary, it also requires a clear message, which Ugly Betty’s makers clearly haven’t figured out yet. At this point, a motley cast of characters are all linked through their relationship with Betty, but to what purpose? No risks are being taken if Justin goes through life blithely unaware of his uniqueness minus a few small incidences. And why is no one questioning sister Alex’s mental state in her new form and only inquiring into her betrayal of the family by faking her death? Is America ultimately a melting pot where people of all types become one, or is it a salad bowl where people can remain their own entities? It seems as though the producers are testing the waters before they answer those questions.
On the one hand, this is wise. After all, ABC needs to sell to a wider audience. Truly revolutionary shows like HBO’s The Wire, set in the ghettos of West Baltimore, can only see success on a small scale because HBO’s audience is much more self-selective than ABC’s. On the other hand, there isn’t much time left for Ugly Betty to decide on a course of action. Although the plot has not slowed nor have the quips stopped firing, the show is starting to recycle itself. Grace Chin, Lucy Liu’s character introduced in the latest episode, for example, is disturbingly similar to Selma Hayek’s character earlier in the season. Both are man eaters who sleep with Daniel to manipulate him.
We can only hope that Ugly Betty does not go the way of Desperate Housewives or The OC. Both of these shows started out with a class-based premise. Upper middle class women in picture-perfect towns can be oppressed; the existence of liberal hypocrisy in the wealthy of liberal California. It is to be hoped that the makers of Ugly Betty – which include Selma Hayek – are simply biding their time before bringing these class issues to the forefront of the show. Perhaps the safest bet is to wait and woo audiences first with the glitz and glamor. After all, revolution happens one step at a time.