America Ferrara, Eric Mabius, Vanessa L. Williams
It didn’t move mountains. It didn’t break records. It (sadly) didn’t launch its star into an iconic stratosphere. The thing only got four seasons, and it essentially had to beg for the opportunity to produce a final one. The Internet Movie Database gives it an average rating of 6.2 out of 10 and at Metacritic, the series holds a 75 out of a 100 percent rating, meaning it’s gained a fair share of praise, but nothing near what the classics usually receive.
Yet when ABC’s Ugly Betty went dark on 14 April 2010, after 85 episodes and approximately 604,215 plot twists, the television world was just a tad less interesting than it was on, say, 13 April 2010. It was just a little less diverse, a little less fun, a little less sunny, a little less addictive, a little less… worth it. It was like one of the good guys had died in an old-country Western—the character that made every bad guy look worse than he was and every other good guy not nearly as genuine as he thought. Nobody reinvented the wheel when they made Ugly Betty; they just made four-wheel drive that much more practical.
This is why the series should stand a little above its gone-but-not-forgotten peers when it comes to ill-fated television series: Everything about the Suarez family and MODE magazine just felt a little more fresh than its companions. Even today, losing yourself in episodes of the show is as easy as it was for Daniel Meade to bed another model. The thing was pitch-perfect, a traditional telenovela bastardized by just enough American influence to make it equal parts cheesy and cheeky.
“Ugly Betty isn’t just entertainment, it’s therapy,” the great television critic Tom Shales wrote in 2006. “Nirvana therapy. It’s happiness in a tube, or rather The Tube. It’s a pint of Ben & Jerry’s with no fat or calories. It’s tuning in to The View to discover they all have laryngitis. It’s Florida without those disgusting bugs. 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.” (“Look Homely, Angel”, The Washington Post, 28 September 2006)
Precisely. It was, in essence, the underdog for underdogs. It never tried to be anything it wasn’t, which meant it never fell victim to a TV world that’s become so bogged down with predictability lately that someone offered the mayor of Toronto his own show to try and highlight how not-predictable a single human being can be. Utterly unbelievable and deliciously dramatic, Ugly Betty succeeded because of its fearlessness, because of its balls. It went where other shows weren’t going and not once did it appear overly (read: obnoxiously) concerned with any type of destination.
From portraying the journey of a teenager who discovers he’s gay (a story-line Silvio Horta, the American version’s head writer who himself is openly gay, has often referenced as one that somewhat mirrored his own) to the transformation from girl to woman—or, in Hilda’s case, from daughter to wife—Ugly Betty might not have completely broken barriers, but it certainly helped stretch them. Plus, it was, and still is, for that matter, bright. The show simply feels different than most of what else is offered on popular television. Be it the telenovela influence or be it a wide range and large abundance of whimsy, each episode felt like it belonged on Disney After Dark: Its confluence of adult drama and fairy-tale scenery was a dichotomy that doesn’t always work, but set against such a game cast and an even more imaginative writing staff, this series proved to be nothing less than a Michelin-starred meal when it came to fine-dining television.
And that’s why the time has finally come for seconds.
Rumors of an Ugly Betty movie have been swirling since the show went dark. They picked up again earlier this year when the notion of a kickstarter campaign came into play after the beloved Veronica Mars received enough support to produce a highly anticipated follow-up film to the TV series. A Facebook page for the Ugly Betty movement was soon started and a Twitter account (@WeWantUglyBetty) wasn’t far behind.
A show that saw its ratings decline incrementally from 11.3 million viewers during its first season’s premiere, all the way to 5.5 million by the time its final run kicked off, the series has been kept alive by a devoted fan base and a cult following. Try all you want to keep the Suarez collective down, but as anyone who’s ever spent more than 15 minutes with any of the series’ episodes will tell you, this family’s never-die demeanor can overcome pretty much anything this world could throw at them (including some heartbreakingly confused appearances from Dexter‘s Maria LaGuerta).
Actually, part of what makes the series so memorable is the reality that the same don’t-give-up mantra can be said for its followers. Ugly Betty‘s seduction is in direct correlation with its nerve. You root for these people, both the good and the bad. For all the devious plotting Vanessa Williams’ Wilhelmina Slater dreams up, it’s hard not to hope that her romance with Grant Bowler’s Connor Owens works out. Amanda and Mark can be cruel to anyone they want, but whenever their respective bouts of loneliness creep in, you secretly beg for them to find true romance. Judith Light’s Claire Meade struggles with alcohol addiction and turns out to be a fairly awful mother to a son she’s never even met, but each time she grabs a glass, you can’t help but chuckle all the while knowing that there indeed are motherly values buried within her soul that creep to life every now and then.
The point is this: While every successful television series has a fair share of characters that demand both attention and empathy, Ugly Betty offers a specifically toned touch of enlightenment that other popular TV shows have lacked. There’s something in every main player that all viewers can relate to, for better or for worse. It’s one of the few recent dramedies that revel in the guilty pleasure tag, despite it being far above such a typically derogatory term. It’s as though the writers wanted you to label it low-to-middle-brow only to enhance any possible arrival at high-brow so much that any viewer invested in its world could feel a sense of hard-earned accomplishment.
Those realities only make the production of an Ugly Betty movie all that more imperative, all that more substantial. Intense fandom and cult followings are never earned by accident. Sure, the numbers may waver, and yes, the critics will always exist (the actress Jaime Pressly, for instance, once admitted her distain by infamously proclaiming the series “bores the hell out of me. I can’t stand it.”), but those nay-sayers are deafly overpowered by the supporters in these types of situations if only for the extraordinary amount of loyalty that gets behind this type of enthusiasm.
Besides, how often does a Hispanic family get to play the lead in a mainstream television series, anyway? How often is the stand for equal rights among the LGBT community so focused when it comes to ABC weeknights? How many varying voices are truly heard on the Big Four networks with any amount of consistency? How many courtroom dramas can those guys churn out and how many sci-fi thrillers can JJ Abrams pitch before an hour-long series about an ethnic family with wholeheartedly modern values is given the green light?
“You can’t deny that Ugly Betty was one of the most beautiful, provoking, delightful dramedies to hit network television in the past decade,” Entertainment Weekly‘s Tanner Stransky wrote in the wake of the show’s final episode. “Ugly Betty affected my life in several important ways. I remember watching the pilot back in May 2006, when I worked at a different TV magazine just before landing at Entertainment Weekly. I was mesmerized. Somehow, with just the right amount of wit and grandeur, the Betty creators had managed to put a go-get-’em face — through one very beautiful, but supposedly “ugly,” girl played by American Fererra — on my own experience navigating the treacherous waters of the New York City publishing scene. In a way, ugly duckling Betty was a Mary Tyler Moore for a younger generation.” (“Ugly Betty: Why It Mattered”, Entertainment Weekly, 14 April 2010)
Yes, she was. An updated version of the always-inspiring atypical zero-to-hero story is fodder for any television fan with a soft heart and big expectations, anyway, but Betty Suarez bridged the gap between traditionalism and a Brand New World far more obsessed with image and status than it’s ever been. With help from a cast of characters as layered as they were simple, as deep as they were aesthetic, the story Ugly Betty told was one of both evocation and growth, transcendence and value.
There were many series that came before it and there will be many more that pop up after it, but few played so elegantly in such a magnetically complex, yet equally predictable playground. For that, it should be remembered for decades of entertainment to come. And for that, it should be given one last opportunity to invite its friends to take one final ride down that twisty, exhilarating slide on which it had so much fun exploring for so many years in so many ways.