Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Nine episodes into the first season.
Where to start with Ugly Betty? The Americanized telanovela about an unglamorous assistant at a hyperglamorous magazine is a tangle of contradictions. It’s both frivolous and sincere, farcically broad one moment and surprisingly delicate the next, cheerfully divorced from reality and then ready to examine issues of class, for example, that most purportedly “serious” dramas don’t touch. To focus solely on Ugly Betty’s charming silliness would belie its depth, but to concentrate on its heavier, more provocative elements would also misrepresent the show.
That weird, contradictory chemistry of goofy camp and earnest thoughtfulness is what makes Ugly Betty so interesting. It doesn’t always work—sometimes a scene tilts too far in one direction or the other—but when it does work, Ugly Betty contradicts its own name.
Of course, there isn’t much ugliness to Betty in the first place. America Ferrera plays the titular protagonist, and even unfortunate bangs, a mouthful of braces, and a closet packed with garishly mismatched clothing cannot disguise the fact that she’s actually quite striking, if curvier than your average size-00 starlet. The unspoken undercurrent of the show, however, is that it’s not the bangs or the braces or even the breasts that Betty’s coworkers at Mode magazine find so objectionable. It’s who Betty Suarez is: a Latina, working-class Queens College grad. (“One of America’s best value colleges!” sneers another assistant at Mode.)
We see Mode, a gleeful send-up of glossy fashion mags, through Betty’s often bewildered eyes. (One episode focuses on the hysteria surrounding the first photograph of celebrity couple “Tim” and “Chloe” with their never-before-seen infant daughter, “Chutney.”) Juxtaposed against that kitschy excess, Betty’s private life sometimes feels jarringly earth-bound. For instance, several early episodes contain scenes in which Betty tries to negotiate with the family HMO for a doctor’s appointment for her dad, Ignacio. Eventually, though, Ugly Betty reveals that the HMO won’t give Papa Suarez an appointment because he doesn’t have a legitimate Social Security number. And why doesn’t he have a Social Security number? Because he fled illegally to the United States after killing an abusive husband (who happened to be his employer) in defense of the man’s beaten wife (with whom Ignacio was in love)! And it’s that kind of turn—from trenchant realism into extravagant soap operatics—that makes Ugly Betty fun: It allows you to have your cake and eat it, too.
The secondary characters function similarly, shifting seamlessly between comic relief and heartfelt drama. Betty’s boss Daniel’s nemesis, Mode creative director Wilhelmina Slater, is delightfully catty and devious, and yet as much fun as Vanessa L. Williams has playing the fiendish diva—and as much as trouble as she inflicts upon Betty and Daniel—we can’t hate her. She’s too much fun, for one thing, but we sympathize with her, too. She has a right to be angry at the blatant nepotism of her boss, Daniel’s father, passing her over to install his inexperienced playboy son as editor-in-chief of Mode, and frankly, Wil’s talent, qualifications, and longevity with the magazine make her much better suited than Daniel to lead it. Williams’ performance might be campy on the surface (and wonderfully so), but that’s just the first layer of the complex, compelling character.
Ugly Betty handles Wilhelmina’s assistant, Marc, in much the same way, somehow indulging in wacky, broad humor without ever rendering the character less than human. In fact, Marc delivers one of the most touching lines thus far on the program. When Betty’s couture-loving nephew, Justin, tags along with her to Mode, Marc, who is gay, clearly sees something of himself in the rather effeminate, preadolescent boy. “A word of advice,” Marc quietly tells Justin. “Be who you are, wear what you want, just learn how to run real fast.” The affirmation and empathy of those words humanize Marc, and they also reflect the show’s understated yet bold treatment of sexuality and gender issues. Without turning into an After-School Special, the scene gently urges us to think about how unfriendly, even dangerous, the world can be to boys, straight or gay, who prefer fashion to football.
Not every would-be affecting scene works that well. Thus far, Ugly Betty has insisted upon romanticizing Betty’s whiny, controlling creep of a boyfriend, who inevitably complains that he doesn’t like “new” Betty who works at Mode. Not that Betty has changed. To the contrary, Ugly Betty too often conforms to the idea that Betty’s continued ignorance of the field covered by her magazine is a mark of her self-possession. It’s not, of course; it shows a lack of professionalism. If Betty worked for a sports magazine, no one would admire her for being unable to follow a basketball game, and by the same token, no one should admire her inability to dress appropriately for dinner at a posh Soho restaurant when she’s there representing Mode. Dressing in a simple skirt and sweater rather than an aqua-colored taffeta monstrosity would indicate maturity and decorum, not self-betrayal, as Ugly Betty suggests it would.
Such missteps are glaring because they’re obnoxious but also because they’re rare. Ugly Betty is usually quite sure-footed, due in large part to its superb cast: charismatic and insightful and riotously funny. I would have thought that campy humor and affecting drama would be mutually exclusive, but somehow Ugly Betty unites them, contradictions and all.