So. Ugly Betty. It seems like the kind of show you should hate, doesn’t it? The kind of show you roll your eyes at, like oh-yeah-that-trashy-show-that-thinks-it’s-so-clever? Or at least the kind of show you’re into for a few episodes at most before it becomes old news? It’s got everything stacked against it. It’s a remake of a Colombian telenovela (oh, come on, do they really think that will work on American TV?). It invokes all the world-of-fashion clichés (didn’t we see those in The Devil Wears Prada?). And it’s both a comedy and a soap opera (Desperate Housewives tried and fizzled—despite my high hopes for it at the beginning of last season, it didn’t go anywhere interesting and I think I’m done with it now).
And yet somehow, none of these things are a problem. I wouldn’t even call Ugly Betty a guilty pleasure like The O.C. or American Idol, because honestly, the show is so well-done that there’s really nothing to feel guilty about.
So why does this show work? Well, first of all, the writing is terrific. There’s a subtle element of self-awareness to it that makes all the difference. It’s not like The O.C., where Seth would do things like say to rich jocks about to beat him up, “You wouldn’t really hurt me, would you, because that would be so clichéd…oh, okay, I guess you’re fans of the cliché.” With Ugly Betty, it’s more like small touches that clue you in that the writers aren’t taking this too seriously. The scenes that seem the most soapy are the ones that are filmed the most obviously, with an over-the-top facial expression or a dramatic swell of music to at the climax of a scene. So when an episode ends with a murder confession, or when a character is meeting a dark figure standing in the shadows, or when a mysterious lady we’ve seen only under bandages turns out to be a character’s supposedly-dead brother who faked his own death and had a sex-change operation…it’s clear that the writers know how ridiculous those situations sound if you say them out loud.
But the strange thing is that even with crazy soap-opera plots, and even with superficial fashion-world characters, the characters still seem real. Which is another huge reason the show works—it has a cast full of characters you like and care about. Betty is such a great character. She has this knack for getting into awkward situations that makes her easy to relate to, and she’s so smart, determined, and outspoken that it’s hard to root against her. She lives in Queens with her widowed father, who’s struggling to legalize his immigration status; her loudmouthed older sister Hilda; and her effeminate twelve-year-old nephew, Justin, all of whom add a lot of memorable scenes and provide a nice contrast to her shallow co-workers at fashion magazine Mode.
Strangely enough, though, said shallow co-workers are hard to hate. I really like Betty’s boss, Daniel, a sex addict who can often be dense and self-centered. But he’s a good person at heart who does care about the people closest to him. Then there are the villains. Vanessa Williams is great as Wilhelmina, the scheming creative director after Daniel’s editor-in-chief job. She’s the caricature of a fashion-obsessed, Botox-using, power-hungry bitch, but there are little moments where we see that she does have a heart—when she punches an asshole guy who upset her friend, when she sends the daughter she’s sent to boarding school and long neglected a care package and puts extra thought into it. Two other characters whom I like despite their evilness are Marc, Wilhelmina’s catty but hilarious gay assistant, and Amanda, the gorgeous, bitchy receptionist. Both of them have their sympathetic moments as well—there’s a heartbreaking episode where Marc comes out to his mother, only to have her promptly disown him, and it’s hard not to feel for Amanda when you learn that she likes Daniel, who only sees her as another one-night stand.
Maybe the most sympathetic villain of all, though, is Alexis—the brother-who-faked-his-own-death-but-really-had-a-sex-change-operation I mentioned earlier. After Alexis (formerly Alex) comes back from the dead, she also vies for her brother Daniel’s job. But as she adjusts to her new life as a woman, she also has to deal with guys in bars calling her a freak and the rejection of her father, who pays a man to try to seduce her and get her to leave the country.
This show is kind of like the anti-Sex and the City: it’s got a heroine who’d rather play DDR with her nephew than go out for a night on the town, more concerned with her journalism career and her family’s health than with the latest style of Manolos, and more eager to feel her lips tingling when she kisses the geeky accountant she likes than to sleep with the first hot guy who crosses her path. And while I love Sex and the City, I have to say, Betty is my kind of girl. (On a personal note, I think part of her appeal is that she’s the same age as me and has the same interest in writing.)
I got hooked on this show over the summer, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store next season—this time, I can watch the plot twists you don’t see coming as they air.