By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
"Ugly Betty" isn't just entertainment, it's therapy. 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.
The heroine of "Ugly Betty," as the title does considerably more than imply, is not by traditional or contemporary standards a raving beauty. But she's a beautiful person just the same, and you might be raving once you meet her via the ABC series premiering tonight and raising the bar on new-season comedies way, way up.
It's more of a dramedy, since Betty's persona lends herself to the occasional poignancy. But the creators of the series, which was adapted from a successful Colombian telenovela, have wisely been sparing with the pathos; there are no self-congratulatory fanfares to herald or warn of a Tender Moment Ahead. Betty sneaks up on you and steals your heart -- rather than turning on the pixilated cutes and screaming "Love me!" in your ear.
America Ferrera, as Betty, is a day full of sunshine -- and, conversely, sometimes a night full of moonlight. Fate in its capricious cruelty has plopped the painfully plain, gawky girl smack-dab in the middle of a world where beauty is the norm, chic is not unique and stylishness is next to godliness but even closer to wealthiness. Betty gets the job of assistant to the editor of the world's most prestigious and fashionable fashion magazine because the editor's father doesn't want his son being distracted by a pretty and sexy assistant as he goes about avoiding work each day.
Naturally, Betty is bound to find out the reason for her seeming good fortune, and her feelings are hurt -- but her feelings are self-repairing. They're accustomed to injury and almost inured to it. She doesn't kid herself or imagine she's gorgeous, but neither does she go into sulks of self-pity.
The editor, played by Eric Mabius, is conventionally good-looking and not just another harebrained hunk. After initially conspiring to banish Betty from the premises, he begins to see her value, and because he can see hers, we can see his. For the editor, having Betty around amid the million-dollar models is a little like keeping one cozily lumpy, friendly old easy chair in an office full of coldly trendy backbreakers.
Betty is all heart. She's just a little on the homely side, with braces on her teeth, and braces on her braces. When a big, wide smile breaks out, she looks like the bumper on a '53 Buick Roadmaster.
But she's "oh, so easy to love" in Cole Porter's phrase. Many a songwriter or storyteller, of course, has composed ballads or fables extolling inner beauty over the outer, superficial kind -- Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" easily comes to mind. "Meeskite," a song from the Broadway musical "Cabaret" and performed by the great Jack Gilford, was about a homely couple who give birth to a magnificently gorgeous child -- thus proving, Gilford sings, that even though "you're not beautiful, it's true, there may be beautiful things in you."
Is it a trite or corny lesson to be learning after all these years? No. It's the kind of moral-to-the-tale that never really grows old-fashioned. Some will find the idea of a TV show containing any lesson to be awfully corny, unless it's something from Children's Television Workshop, and the lesson is along the lines of love thy neighbor or remember thy alphabet.
And "Betty" is on a sufficiently sophisticated level so that it seems not gratingly platitudinous but blithely attitudinous. Although Ferrera is the only absolutely indispensable cast member, the supporting players are more than decorative. They include ravishing Vanessa Williams, who -- with the help of a toadying sycophant played by Michael Urie -- conspires to uproot the magazine's editor and put Williams's character on the throne.
"Betty" pays homage to its telenovela origins mainly by having the heroine say she likes to watch telenovelas and by making the show a serialized saga, which is a pity because if there's anything television doesn't need, it's more serialization. The second episode is all about a mockup for the next issue of the magazine being stolen and then recovered, although at the very end, there's a crash of thunder and an ominous "to be continued." (On a more serious note, Betty's stuffed bunny also disappears, and foul play is suspected.) Cliffhangers seem inappropriate and unnecessary on such a lighthearted show.
As for Betty's ethnic origins, she's a very Americanized Latin American, one partial to such fashion statements as a huge red poncho with the word "Guadalajara" embroidered across the front.
The scripts wisely find time for topical satire, especially of the frivolous fashion world -- references to Botox injections and the like. We also hear about a model who accidentally backed her car over a gaggle of innocent bystanders, just as publicist Lizzie Grubman did during an unfortunate occurrence in the Hamptons back in 2002 (when we were young and innocent).
The new TV season is not breaking any records when it comes to either the bad or the beautiful. Many shows, including a few that rank as excellent, arrive enveloped in their own heavy cloud of melancholia and malaise. "Ugly Betty," though, is the proverbial far cry from that sort of downer. It's sweet, touching and deliriously cheerful -- the best new show of the year and a great big blast of happiness.
Ugly Betty (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 7.