Thursday, April 15, 2010

Saying Goodbye to "Ugly Betty"

My fling with "Ugly Betty" was fairly quick. I was rooming with a "Betty" fan during the second season, and it was the only show she watched on a regular basis. I got sucked in by the brightly colored decor and girl-power spunk of the premise. America Ferrera, who played Betty Suarez, was a welcome break from the norm in her braces and disastrously uncoordinated outfits. Also, I was struck by the resemblance between Eric Mabius, who plays Betty's boss Daniel Meade, and my own supervisor at work at the time.

Aside from a very brief "General Hospital" phase in high school, I was never much for soaps. And that's what "Ugly Betty" was - a primetime soap. More specifically, it was an adaptation of the Colombian telenovela, "Betty La Fea," one of several international versions that have been hits around the globe. The American version encapsulated several rising trends of the time - "The Devil Wears Prada" fashionistas, Latino and openly gay characters emerging in the popular culture, and a nice little backlash against increasingly emaciated female body images.

During the first season, it was hard to escape "Betty-mania." The critics loved it, and the show collected heaps of awards at the Golden Globes and the Emmys. It attracted a respectable number of viewers, enough to help ABC put up some real competition on Thursday nights against "Survivor." America Ferrera and Vanessa Williams, who played the deliciously evil magazine editor Wilhelmina Slater, were everywhere. But then the love disappeared just as quick. The show's subsequent seasons steadily lost viewers and went through several different timeslots until its was finally canceled this year.

For my part, I appreciated the show more than I enjoyed it. After a season of watching Betty juggle potential love interests, foil Wilhelmina's plots against the Meade family, and bail loved ones out trouble, my interest petered out. My roommate and I split ways, and I quickly lost track of the show. I had the same peeves about "Betty" that I had with most soap operas - lack of resolution, repetitiveness, and very slow plot progression. I watched the finale last night and was caught up in about two minutes. But credit where credit is due - it was by far the most entertaining soap I'd watched in recent memory.

I got a real kick out of seeing successful career women at the forefront of many storylines, battling each other over work as well as men. I loved that everyone had some ambition, from Betty's sister Hilda trying to become a hair stylist to Wilhelmina's catty minion Marc turning up in the same editors-in-training program as Betty. And best of all, the writers weren't scared of going for laughs. The humor was always spot-on, often playfully winking at the show's ridiculous plot twists and oddball logic. And it helped to enliven the obvious messages of tolerance and diversity that were always at the heart of "Betty."

It's only been four short years, but "Ugly Betty" already feels like it was made for a different era, when print publications weren't being downsized left and right, and the recession hadn't upended every twenty-something's job expectations and career prospects. Nor is it the only multi-culti comedy on the air anymore, with ABC's "Modern Family" and FOX's "Glee" featuring similarly varied casts of characters. Though the creators of "Betty" apparently had a five-year plan for the series, it feels right that it's ending now, closing out the cultural moment that spawned it.

I watched the finale last night and was glad to see Betty got a proper sendoff, finally achieving closure for several of its storylines and letting most of the characters find their happy endings. Rumors are already floating about a feature film follow up. As an alternative, I'd love to see a new series about Betty's adventures in London. For now, though, I'm happy to know "Ugly Betty" made good on its premise. The braces came off and the wardrobe got an upgrade, but the biggest change to Betty Suarez after four years was her attitude and confidence. All grown up, with her own editing gig, and calling her own shots, Betty is an ugly duckling no more.

And in the show's final shot the title card followed suit, with the "Ugly" fading away at long last to leave "Betty," ready to take on the world.

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