Thursday, September 28, 2006

Beautiful Betty

In this morning's column, I review "Ugly Betty," one of my two or three favorite new shows of the season:

Some TV shows need months, even years, to find their voice.

"Ugly Betty" needs five seconds.

The opening shot of this enormously appealing new series is a tight close-up of star America Ferrera, her hair badly styled, her eyes framed by thick red glasses, a hint of a tacky plaid suit jacket. Her lip quivers nervously, and we cut to the words "UGLY BETTY" in big, Day-Glo block letters, then back to Betty as she smiles broadly and we see that some malicious orthodontist has welded the grillwork of an Escalade to her teeth.

In that quick juxtaposition of how awful Betty looks and how happy she feels, the show establishes both its key theme of substance over style and its arch, self-aware sense of humor. "Ugly Betty" may have some Important Stuff to say about the emptiness of beauty, but not at the expense of a good laugh.

To read the rest, click here.

UPDATE: So, what say the rest of ya's?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

"In that quick juxtaposition of how awful Betty looks and how happy she feels, the show establishes both its key theme of substance over style..."

Good thing no television show or movie has covered this theme. Ever.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Then it's a really good thing that, in the very next sentence, I point out that the show is a comedy first, a soap second and a message piece a very, very distant third.

Lyle said...

Good thing no television show or movie has covered this theme. Ever.

But has it ever been covered this way? I've been struggling to think of another story (at least, one that's been presented to such a wide audience in the USA) where we're hoping the handsome guy will learn to appreciate a woman's substance over her appearance.

I think that's what appeals to me about this show, judging from the previews, it's subversive while wading through sappy cliches.

Kimberly said...

Does anyone else find the execution of this show a little...annoying? The concept is pretty good, but my problem is with the obvious way America Ferrera has been "uglied up." Please. Give me 10 minutes with her -- and I'm not even a fashion stylist -- and I could have her looking gorgeous. I hate when they take pretty girls (see Rachel Leigh Cooke in SHE'S ALL THAT), throw on a pair of glasses, give them a bad hairdo and some bad clothes and label them ugly. Anyone with half a brain can see the beauty that lurks directly beneath the surface. It's insulting too our intelligence.

I'd have liked the show better if they'd cast Sara Ramirez (Callie on GREY'S ANATOMY) and left her looking like her normal self. True, Sara is gorgeous, but she would be considered morbidly obese if she worked at most NYC magazines. (I used to be employed at Conde Nast and, let me tell you, anytime someone above a size 8 strolled into the office everyone would start gossiping about how fat she was.)

Jennifer R said...

Yeah, but be realistic. No genuinely ugly female under fifty is going to make it on to American television. Period. And I am speaking as a full-on Nerd With Glasses that used to get barked at on the street.

I just keep wondering at what point "Ugly Betty" gets that 10-minute makeover. I don't know squat about the original version, but in America, I would be flabbergasted if the girl spent an entire season with the glasses and braces still on.

Anonymous said...

jennifer, it will probably be right after she hilariously walks into a glass door for the tenth time...

manuel said...

I hated the German version of this show, partly because of the way the protagonist was "uglied up" , so I'm rather sceptic. It was a huge success, though.

Lindy said...

I've been struggling to think of another story (at least, one that's been presented to such a wide audience in the USA) where we're hoping the handsome guy will learn to appreciate a woman's substance over her appearance.

Usually it's the other way around -- a less-than-handsome guy hopes the bombshell he's been lusting after wakes up and sees what a great guy he is. I for one welcome a show that turns the tables!

Re: the uglification of beautiful actresses ... America Ferrera is gorgeous (as anyone who's seen Real Women Have Curves knows, what a great movie!). But even at her most gorgeous she wouldn't fit the definition of "beauty" espoused by the NYC fashion magazines. I don't see a ten-minute makeover in her future, simply because her colleagues won't look at her and see an uglified pretty girl who just needs some fashion tips. They'll see she's not a size 0 and leave it at that -- and I think both Betty (and her show) will be better for it.

J said...

Okay, notes:

I think her likeability trumps most of the problems I have with the show. And her fearlessness. That photo shoot had a Freaks & Geeks-level cringe factor.

But it's going to be tough striking a couple balances. First, she has to stay capable and intelligent -- otherwise, why bother? -- but somehow still unable to modify her appearance. Without getting into disturbing, psychotic hygenic/eating disorders. Because she's already got strikes against her.

(That makeover attempt should be brought up immediately -- her bosses would do so -- just to nullify the option.)

The other problem is the tone. The acting's all over the place. Does Vanessa Williams think she's on that Mexican soap opera? (And what happened to the "L"?) Over-the-top stuff should be reserved for model shoots/runway shows/other obviously unreal events. I'd rather see most of it played straight. But then, I can't stand Desperate Housewives.

And Gina Gershon must stay far, far away from comedy.

I'll keep watching, for now, because I like Betty.

carol said...

I was devasted when 10 minutes into the show, we lost power and the DVR didn't record! America Ferrara is terrific and I am filled with joyful anticipation of the next episode. A story doesn't need to be "new" to be enjoyable. Have you ever watched a movie more than once?

Kristin said...

J, did you not know that this show was based on a telenovela? Did you not see Salma Hayek on the tv parodying that very type of show? Vanessa Williams plays the part JUST like it would be played on a telenovela. Think "Days of Our Lives" at night. Totally the same concept, but done with a smart twist. The hero and heroine are intelligent and real people--not over-the-top. They seem to be the only normal people on the show (with the exception of the dad, nephew, and clothes closet girl). Everyone else is a caricature.

And that is what I liked about the show...beyond the fact that I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE America. I would watch her in anything.

As far as beautifying the 'ugly' girl, yes, you can take away the glasses and braces, and she would be 99 times better. But the one thing I like is that she will stay the size she is. There will be no miraculous shedding of the pounds.

I am always annoyed by skinny actresses who gain weight for roles (i.e. Renee Zellweger in "Bridget Jones"). Why can't they just find an actress that size? You can't tell me there aren't pleasingly plump actresses out there just dying for a break!

So, I am happy that they will make her prettier over time by getting rid of a few things...but her weight will stay exactly the same. Thank GOD!

Lizbeth said...

I had a hard time figuring out what this series is trying to be. Some of the actors are phenomenal, and some -- not so much. Also, I was not a fan of the "cartoonish" acting of many of the main characters. It really seemed to be trying too hard.

Plus what the hell is up with network TV? From reviews I had read "how sweet this show is." Nobody warned me that a character would be receiving oral pleasure from a woman hidden under his desk. How the hell does this scenario make it into network television at 8 p.m.?

Besides reality shows (American Idol, Wifeswap, Extreme Makeover), there isn't a single network show appropriate for watching with my children. Don't believe me, try sitting and watching network sitcoms with a 10-year-old sitting next to you. You will find yourself squirming quite a bit.

I'm not a prude. I love my Sopranos, Deadwood, and Entourage more than anyone. I'm also a blogger who curses like a truckdriver and a screenwriter who loves to write uncensored.

But nobody is talking about how TV has basically shut out families as far as programming goes. Call me old-fashioned, but I would love to see a return to the "Family Hour". Honestly, I think most of the sitcoms nowadays just come off as raunchy and creepy. They were more interesting when they had to be "creative" in their sexual innuendo in order to get past the network censors.

Dan Coyle said...

I thought it was very sweet. Ferrera's Betty looks oddly like a Gilbert Hernandez drawing come to life.

What worked for me was Ferrera and Mabius' chemistry and the burgoening friendship between Betty and Daniel. It was nice that they could see past each other's predjudices to help each other out.

But is it worth skipping The Office, for those of us whose VCRs are broken and are too cheap to buy TiVO? Sorry, but I needs my Rainn Wilson fix.

J said...

Kristin, I didn't, and don't really care that it was. In fact, had I known, I would have been less likely to watch it. I thought the point of having the show-within-the-show (other than giving producer Hayek a couple nice cameos) was to contrast the histrionics of the soap with the "real problems" of staying on hold with HMOs for 2 hours.

I have zero interest in watching "Days of Our Lives" at night, or at any other time. And caricatures bore me. They're lazy.

The styles clash. Even if the producers' intent is to make home life "normal" and work life soap operatic, that ultimately falls apart when the long list of exceptions you list ensues.

Kristin said...

J, I guess it is just not a show for you. I would say "Desperate Housewives" also went for the nighttime soap parody...and it was very well-received. That show started out being very self-aware (not so much anymore...) and that's what made it so much fun to watch.

"Ugly Betty" is the same way, with a Latin American flair to it. I think the cartoonish characters are balanced with the 'regular' folks very nicely. I really don't want to find out that Vanessa Williams' character has any redeeming characteristics about her. I don't want to feel badly for her or understand her motives beyond the black and white. She is the villain, and I want her to stay that way.

If Betty and Daniel were also cartoonish heros, I wouldn't like them nearly as much. Because they are human with real flaws, I can instantly connect with them. Meanwhile, hating the baddies without regret.

I loved Betty and am looking forward to Daniel slowly realizing what a great woman he has working for him...and leaving the one-night stands behind.

Lindy said...

I thought it was charming. Was anyone else reminded of Alice in Wonderland? Betty, our Everywoman heroine, is sent down the rabbit hole (or through the subway tunnel) to a bizarre universe where almost nothing obeys the rules she's used to. Yes, the Mode world is over-the-top, but I think that's what makes the show work.

Anonymous said...

I liked the show very much. Two things bothered me, though. If Betty's family has financial problems, then how can she afford orthodontia?

Also, I may have missed something with respect to the costume she was sent to fetch. Was this the outfit she eventually wore and specifically made for her (a cruel joke with considerable planning)? Models clothes would be size zero.

Dan Coyle said...

One thing that bugged me... it's a minor thing, but it drives me crazy sometimes... Betty's mother is dead.

It seems like EVERY hispanic family in pop culture, from Resurrection Blvd. to that freakin' Baldo comic strip, has a mother who dies of some sort of disease by the time the oldest child turns 15. I mean, geez.

Anonymous said...

I liked this better when it was called "The Devil Wears Prada" and then even better when it was just a storyline on "Sex and the City."

You'd think that in doing this show so similar to "Prada" they'd at least not use the same song from the movie.

Definitely the most overhyped show I've seen so far.

Plus, I hate that guy who plays Betty's ex. He annoys the hell out of me in those Netscape/Net Zero ads.

CG said...

Anon - In general I liked the show, but the concept of her fitting into anything prepared for that photo shoot annoyed the heck out of me, too. When she was sent away, I was envisioning her coming back with something rigged with multiple parts (as her new friend's jacket was) and was horrified that they expected us to believe a size 12+ costume happened to be around in the 0's needed it.

dez said...

"I liked this better when it was called "The Devil Wears Prada" and then even better when it was just a storyline on "Sex and the City." "

I liked it better when it was called "Betty La Fea"...oh, wait....

I loved it and now I'm torn between taping it and continuing my "Smallville" fetish. I wish they were repurposing it on ABC Family every week!