With America Ferrera & Eric Mabius
Sundays 7.30pm, Channel 7
The smash success of the US ABC network's Ugly Betty has critics declaring "be ugly" and "ugly is the new beautiful".
The most successful of any network's new series on US television, Ugly Betty deftly blends telenovela-style melodrama and pacing with quick humour and a very warm heart. With multiple storylines and near frenetic pace, the writers have woven a unique mix of true-to-life working-class concerns and total fantasy froth.
This combination has earned the show a dedicated audience and two Golden Globes — for Best Musical or Comedy Series and for Best Actress. The central axis of the show is the story of Betty Suarez (the US's first and only Latina leading lady in prime time, America Ferrera of the 2002 movie Real Women Have Curves), a qualified applicant who is refused an interview for the hopelessly white and thin Mode magazine.
She is later hired, not for her resume but because she is too "ugly" to tempt the philandering new editor-in-chief of Mode, who is himself utterly unqualified except for being the son of the magazine's owner.
The tension between Betty and her boss Daniel (Eric Mabius) luckily is not derived from the stale premise that smart women can't resist charming arseholes, but from their diametrically opposed worlds and outlooks. Betty works hard, is honest and clever, and Daniel is a callous brat.
If the early episodes have a fault, it's that they ride the "Betty saves the day with her down-to-earth smarts" trope a little too hard. But it's endlessly satisfying to see Betty chasten Daniel that he, who has had everything handed to him, shouldn't complain to her, who is trying to get her father's Health Maintenance Organisation to provide him with heart medication so he won't die.
The degree to which women, and Latinas in particular, identify with Betty runs deep; for millions of women, the basic right to be judged on the quality of their work, not their appearance, is still a day-to-day fight. According to a recent editorial in New York's El Diario/La Prensa, "In a society that worships Anglo looks and thin bodies, Ferrera has become a symbol of triumph and rebellion against the status quo".
The success of Betty is yet another indication of the increased integration of Latin American culture and artists smack-dab into mainstream society.
Ugly Betty is a remake of one of Colombia's most successful and groundbreaking series, Yo Soy Betty la Fea (I Am Betty, the Ugly). Colombians flocked to tune in to the stridently anti-sexist show that proudly asserted women are intelligent, competent and not sex objects.
Devotees of Betty in Colombia were utterly betrayed when writers had Betty transform into a traditional beauty, losing her glasses, braces and awkward dress, then fall in love with her womanising boss. Some fans even went so far as to try to sue the producers for violating the public trust.
Luckily, the US writers show no signs of going down that road (in fact, Betty's "other man" is an accountant with oversized glasses), although there is a running gag about a truly over-the-top Latin soap that Betty's family watches half seriously, half mockingly.
Ugly Betty draws on the general mode of telenovelas by putting soap opera drama against the backdrop of current issues. By writing the US Betty as a second-generation Mexican immigrant, the producers have increased the obstacles confronting her. She receives racist taunts, her appearance garners sexist judgment, and her working-class sensibility is degraded.
If Betty has a fault, it's that she's in a world of her own, which is sweetly naive. But her family has no such detachment from the harsh realities and frustrations of day-to-day life. This saves the show from being a hopeless caricature of working-class people as moral, if somewhat simple, beings.
Particularly brilliant is Hilda (Anna Ortiz), Betty's sister who is a single mum. Hilda and Betty's relationship is satisfyingly complex, and depicts the crappy choice women face early on to be "sexy" (but unskilled and broke) or "smart" (but ugly and ignored). And particularly tough and touching is Hilda's relationship with her son Justin (Mark Indelicato), who shows many signs of being gay — should she embrace who he is or "protect" him from persecution by repressing his less-than-butch interests?
Meanwhile, they discover their dad Ignacio (Tony Plana) has been using a fake Social Security number, and now Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants him deported. In fact, none of the characters after a few episodes are the broadly drawn heroes or villains of the original Colombian telenovela.
Good and bad are pretty obvious, and there is relentless trashing of the evilness of the fashion industry, as well as a good dose of how nasty and self-involved the rich are. But even Betty's shallow rivals have moments of conscience, like when flamboyantly gay Marc (Michael Urie) gives the young Justin some unfortunately accurate advice: "Be who you are, wear what you want, and learn to run real fast."
Much of Betty's charm comes from the age-old adage "be true to yourself" and its generosity at extending that to people often discouraged to be visibly different: women, gays, immigrants. While most shows thrive on having characters evolve, the pleasure of Ugly Betty is how unchanged she is by the rapacious culture of petty bourgeois Manhattan.
Watching her triumph week in and week out could get stale, but hopefully there are enough curveballs, double crosses and surprises in the telenovela lexicon to keep it coming for years.