A Plucky Guppy Among the Barracudas
“Ugly Betty” is indeed cute. But she’s the new girl. Let’s not all pounce on her at once. It’s too much to ask of this mostly guileless, slightly ungainly series that it be another “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives” for ABC this year, so maybe we should watch aloofly, starting tonight. Let’s let Betty find her locker and her lunch table, and observe her without asking that she be more than she is.
Of course we can still gossip. This ABC melodramedy, which has attracted big attention both for being an American telenovela and for being funny and good, has a slight premise: an ungorgeous Latina goes to work at a fashion magazine. She’s hired by the father of the party-boy editor in chief because she’s too homely to tempt him into dissipation. Can this sitcom setup work in an hourlong format?
Seems dubious, but “Ugly Betty” is onto the doubts about it and stands ready to turn them into plot. As Betty Suarez, the sexy actress America Ferrera, here defaced by braces and bangs, sets her mouth, squares her shoulders and takes on the part like a linebacker. She’s bravely playing a character who’s coded as ugly, which means she’s still eating food, which is apparently about the bravest thing a television actress can do.
Nourished, braced, standing firm, Betty asks that the world come at her, and come it does: fink boyfriend, vain sister, ineffectual father, trampy neighbor. And that’s just in Queens, where she lives. In Manhattan, at the Vogue-like Mode magazine, Betty finds conniving executives, ruthless monomaniacs, strivers without principles, chubby clock watchers, Uriah Heeps and Iagos and the usual New York office crowd.
So who is Betty in the midst of these grotesques? She’s meant to be nothing but smart and good, though in life the two traits rarely fit perfectly together. And because she’s also “ugly” she’s assumed to have made the ultimate personal sacrifice in our vain world, and her intelligence and wholesomeness are meant to be not only absolute but perfectly compatible. This improbability causes some problems in characterization. The big joke of tonight’s episode is that Betty interprets the comeback of the poncho as permission for her to turn up at work in a red eyesore emblazoned with the word “Guadalajara.”
Naïve and touching, yes, but just to play devil’s advocate what kind of college graduate, as Betty is supposed to be, wears a gift shop poncho on her first day at work, thinking it’s what she’s seeing in magazines? This error is less evidence of a mind on higher things than it is a cognitive disability.
For a serious-minded girl not to understand couture or street-trash ensembles like the designs of Jeffrey Sebelia on “Project Runway” might be admirable. But for a literate, sentient, self-aware young woman to prefer bulky belted layers in clashing patterns and cacophonous shades of red and orange to (at least) the affordable A-line skirts and cotton button-downs at Old Navy or Target, that makes no sense. Commedia characterization on pseudorealist television can be exhausting: just as not every rich person has to wear an ascot, not every provincial girl has to dress like a mental patient.
Betty’s clothes, in other words, the most flamboyant side of her, have not been integrated into her character. They’re a free-standing gag, and that gag cannot last long. Whether there’s a show without that gag, though: that is the question.
Salma Hayek, an executive producer who will also appear sporadically on the show, adapted “Ugly Betty” from a Colombian telenovela called “Yo Soy Betty La Fea.” Ms. Hayek has an uncanny aptitude for blending comedy and melodrama, and she’s managed to infuse the show upstairs and downstairs with soapy fun. There’s a dark corporate plot at Mode, and outrageous catfights in Queens. The ambience of telenovela is everywhere, and conspicuously on the television set in the Queens house, where everyone is addicted to the makeuppy theatrics.
Betty also likes the show — she’s smart but not skeptical — and that’s a nice touch. That wonderful moony side of her comes through even more in her scenes with Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), her boss; Mr. Mabius, who is handsome, and Ms. Ferrera have a sparkling rapport that is the making of this show. He can hold his own with her, and Betty’s crush on him is so hopeless as to seem genuinely and tragically muted.
Daniel, for his part, is sexually drawn to Betty too, but out of perversity — She’s his servant? She’s ugly and thus would be grateful even for abuse? — that this show should probably never make explicit. In any case the two have a valet-hero back-and-forth that, if the writers really explore it, might make them a prime-time Wooster and Jeeves.
But I’m getting ahead of things. Way ahead. “Ugly Betty” is a sweet, funny show. It’s worth watching. And we’ll see.
ABC, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.
Salma Hayek, Silvio Horta, Ben Silverman, Jose Tamez, James Parriott and James Hayman, executive producers; “Pilot” written by Mr. Horta and directed by Richard Shepard. A Touchstone Television production.
WITH: America Ferrera (Betty Suarez), Eric Mabius (Daniel Meade), Alan Dale (Bradford Meade), Tony Plana (Ignacio), Ana Ortiz (Hilda), Ashley Jensen (Christina), Becki Newton (Amanda), Mark Indelicato (Justin), Vanessa Williams (Wilhelmina Slater), Michael Urie (Marc), Kevin Sussman (Walter), William Abadie (Phillippe Michel) and Gina Gershon (Fabia).