[2 October 2007]
Although I’m not one for buying into the hype of critically acclaimed shows, Ugly Betty deserves all the accolades it gets and more. While the fish-out-of-water concept behind Ugly Betty is nothing new, it’s the sheer style (pardon the pun) in which the show has been done that makes it work so well. Re-conceptualized for American audiences, Ugly Betty is based off of the Columbian telenovela, Yo Soy, Betty, La Fea (“I am Betty the Ugly One”) Whereas the original was more of a soap opera/ traditional Cinderella story, its North American counterpart adds several new elements to the mix.
Brought Stateside by Salma Hayek (one of the show’s producers), Ugly Betty bears something of a resemblance to The Devil Wears Prada. Both works feature an intelligent, good-hearted young woman in a superficially based industry, struggling to maintain integrity while attempting to climb the corporate ladder at a top-notch fashion magazine publishing house. In the aforementioned girl’s way are backstabbing assistants also eager to get ahead and a diva of an editrix-in-chief or creative director who owes much to the modern-day wicked witch archetype of a corporate spinster.
Completely unique from the majority of sitcoms on the airwaves, Ugly Betty is part comedy, part drama, part soap opera, and even part mystery. With episodes done in a chronological format that propel the story and the mysteries tucked inside it forward, there are no stand-alone episodes as is the case with most sitcoms.
The show has already earned a Golden Globe and a Peabody in its freshman season. Even more impressively, it garnered 11 Emmy nominations, culminating in a win for America Ferrera, who plays the show’s title character, for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy.
Ugly Betty divides its time with the sharp contrast of the two worlds of Betty Suarez. Chronicling the painful process of not only a first job out of college, but also learning to stand up for herself against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and fashion), things at the offices of Mode magazine (possibly a flip on Vogue) are made more complicated by the inter-office politics. Ranging from hushed-up affairs ending in murder, and presumed-dead siblings returning from the grave with a complete sex-change overhaul (giving new meaning to the term “extreme makeover”), Betty’s position as an executive assistant to the magazine’s editor, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), is made deliciously more complicated than the norm. However, Betty’s life at the office is only half of the drama.
Juxtaposed against the uptown Manhattan network of social-climbers and backstabbers is Betty’s comparatively simple home life in Queens. While the Suarez family is certainly a loving bunch, they’re not without their share of drama. Her widowed father, Ignacio (Tony Plana), an illegal immigrant struggles throughout the season to get his green card while Betty’s older sister, Hilda (Ana Ortiz) juggles single-motherhood to a precocious preteen son (the talented beyond his years Mark Indelicato) with a passion for fashion, and her own search for meaningful employment.
Although a sizeable portion of Ugly Betty‘s storylines and intrigue stem from the superficial and office politics-laden world of Mode magazine and Betty’s inter-office dealings, it’s her home life that gives the show its depth and heart. The Suarez family adds yet another dimension to the story, bringing poignant realism to the table while still injecting the storyline with tender humor with just a bit of bite.
While America Ferrera brings warmth and depth to the character of Betty, a humble Queens girl in a shallow world, the ensemble cast accounts for a large part of the quirky charm of Ugly Betty. Michael Urie steals almost every scene that he’s in as Marc St. James, the groveling, openly gay, and flamboyantly fashion-crazed assistant to the scheming Mode magazine creative director, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams). Alongside Marc is his partner-in-crime; the snide, scheming sexpot Amanda Tanen (played by Becki Newton, equally good as a bitchy foil to Urie). The duo accounts for some of the series’ most fun moments. (A particularly memorable one being Marc and Amanda’s impromptu Thanksgiving party, swilling champagne, dressing in couture gowns, and singing show tunes in out-of-town Wilhelmina’s executive office.)
Comprised of (until now) relative unknowns, the high-caliber of the show’s supporting ensemble cast is nicely offset by the generous supply of acclaimed veteran actors and including Salma Hayek, Patti LuPone, Rita Moreno, and Judith Light. In one of the rare instances of television programming currently jamming the airwaves, there is undeniable chemistry among the lead and supporting cast that makes for a sense of realism across the boards. Every role is cast perfectly—right down to minor, recurring characters, notably a hilarious turn by character actress Octavia Spencer (of Comedy Central’s hilarious, yet sadly cancelled Halfway Home) as Constance, Ignacio’s case worker with a penchant for using her position for more than lending a helping hand to illegal immigrants.
The show’s comic sensibilities range from sophisticated to high camp, never really going for the cheap laugh, but rather wringing laughter and the occasional bit of drama from the unexpected. The beauty of Ugly Betty is that it examines everyday situations under a highly-magnified microscope. Under the wrong direction, writing team or with a merely average squad of actors, such an over-the-top production could spin wildly out of control into camp territory usually reserved for the Adam West incarnation of Batman. Much like the world of high fashion itself, Ugly Betty‘s production is done on a larger-than-life scale—grandiose, flamboyant, but always high-class. Think Alexander McQueen. Think John Galliano. Words like “sedate” and “subdued” don’t exactly spring to mind, do they? Much like gold-label couture designers, Ugly Betty delivers high quality in a most unorthodox package that is still rather “ready-to-wear” without being “off the rack”.
Nothing is quite what it seems on Ugly Betty, however. Every twist of the knife and twist of plot brings about new surprises. Characters that may seem to be initially one-dimensional are graced by the writing team with great depth later on in the series, showing that even the most superficial of characters has a heart buried somewhere beneath that Armani suit. Conversely, another intriguing facet of the series lies within even seemingly wholesome characters possessing some serious skeletons in the closet.
The DVD package of The Bettyfied Edition of the series is beautifully rendered, delivering the sharp, crisp, color necessary for appreciating Season One of Ugly Betty in all its vivid glory. The set’s bonus features highlight and point out the possibly overlooked details that imbue the series with unique charm. The excellent “Green Is the New Black” featurette underscores the talented tech team behind the look of the series. Filmed in Los Angeles, yet set in New York, the five boroughs are digitally replicated to great effect via green screen effects. The CG is so seamless that it’s easy for the viewer to take it for granted that everything is authentically filmed in New York.
Additional bonus features focus on the contrasting visual styles of Betty’s worlds, both the high-gloss, ultra-modern Mode headquarters and the earthy warmth of the Suarez home in Queens. Perhaps the most fascinating featurette, pertinent to the tone of the series is the “A La Mode” docu-mini, focusing on the style of Ugly Betty and the meticulous detail that goes into each and every character’s wardrobe. Thanks to the wardrobe and design team led by Eduardo Castro, characters on the series are further enhanced with distinctive looks that assist in defining the character. Castro and company manage to make it all look good, from Wilhelmina’s tasteful yet seductive pastel suits to Hilda’s outrageous, sexy wardrobe as a queen of Queens.
The only downside is that while the episodes are all duly accounted for on each menu of the discs, there are no submenus per episode, requiring the viewer to manually forward through chapters, rather than hit the submenu to pick up at a given point. This is only a very minor technical inconvenience, however.
Rounding out Ugly Betty - The Complete First Season: The Bettyfied Edition package are bloopers and deleted scenes, making for a comprehensive comedy collection of one of the best television series running today.