Looking back on Season 1 of Ugly Betty
By Alexander B. Huls
Before Ugly Betty hit the air, it had a substantial amount of underground buzz (is that an oxymoron?) going for it. Critics seemed to genuinely like it and started name-dropping it in their Fall TV Season previews. Yet there was always a hint of an underlying fear of its inevitable cancellation. Turns out that fear was joyfully misplaced. Whether it was ABC’s wise decision to move the show from Friday to Thursday (probably realizing what they had), the show’s poignant message, its pre-Grey’s Anatomy time slot, or post Devil Wears Prada interest, Ugly Betty became an out of the gate hit.
Perhaps the central reason Ugly Betty caught on so quickly and has sustained its popularity, is that there are few shows currently on the air with as a big of a heart as this one, and even fewer that wear it so openly on its sleeve. Ugly Betty is not a subtle show by any stretch of the imagination. Each episode has a particular emotional point it wishes to drive home, and the creators ensure that you’ll never be unclear as to what it is. This may sound like I’m criticizing, but in fact the opposite is true. Despite its sentimentality, the show never hits you over the head, but rather in your heart. With so many shows dealing solely with the depressing, darker, and grey-ish areas of life, it’s nice to watch a show that you can say is not only good, but makes you feel good. Ugly Betty’s heart is above all infectious and most certainly addictive. After all, who doesn’t want to feel good? Thankfully the show isn’t just good because of its romantic-comedy spirit and melodramatic leanings (no surprise, given that it’s based on a Spanish telenovela).
The heart of the show is ultimately located in its characters, since when it comes down to it, Ugly Betty is a character’s showcase. Except for very few exceptions (Braford Meade, Claire Meade, and Santos come to mind), every character on the show is fantastic in their own way, and is allowed moments in the spotlight. While certain characters fall predominantly in the comedic category (the fantastic Amanda and Marc team), while others more into the dramatic category (Betty and Daniel), the show is never content to let the characters get too comfortable in either. What is also so enchanting about the show’s characters is that none of them are perfect. Throughout the season each character at one point elicits your undying sympathy, and at another your utmost scorn. Yes, even Betty. I grew rather annoyed with her when she effectively began to stalk Daniel at the end of the season. Yet even when characters make questionable decisions (moral or otherwise), whether they are “good” characters, “gray” characters (Amanda, Marc), or are more “evil” (Wilhelmina), the show is always sure to suggest or demonstrate that the possibility of their redemption is never far off, even if its only for a moment in one episode. In fact, some of the show’s most poignant moments have been when its more nebulous characters’ inner doubts, fears, and feelings were exposed, revealing their inner sweetheart. Whether that be Amanda’s heartbreaking breakdown in the bathroom over her unrequited love of Daniel Meade, Wilhelmina’s doomed love-affair with a Texan millionaire, or Marc coming out to his mother. Whether it is watching beloved characters fall from grace, or more notorious ones fall into grace, what we come to realize is that above all else, beneath the soap-opera exterior, all of the show’s characters are distinctively flawed, yet fundamentally human.Even though the characters are really the center of the show, it’s the plots that provide the stage for them to demonstrate their greatness. It is here that the show’s soap opera roots show most visibly. Plotlines come and go, weave in and out, and overlap like a dramatic cat’s cradle. On Ugly Betty there are always multiple things going on, and always a twist waiting just around the corner. For the most part, the show manages to avoid the silliness often associated with soap operas. Even when it doesn’t, such as the beginning of the season with the silly “mysterious silhouetted woman planning from the shadows” storyline, it’s hard to really fault the show for being a little absurd when it is so self-aware. It’s even harder to fault the show when they pull off soap-opera storylines well enough that it manages to keep interest going and showcase the characters so well.
A good example of how the creators make silly soap-opera twists compelling was the mid-season reveal — one of the best didn’t-see-that-coming twists on TV this year — that the mysterious woman in the shadows was not who we had been cleverly misled to think it was, i.e. Faye Summers, but rather Alex Meade not only back from the dead, but now a transsexual woman named Alexis. What could have been an over-the-top campy disaster of a storyline was handled incredibly deftly and with (of course) a lot of heart. Alexis Meade began as a cookie-cutter “villain”, and gradually morphed into a poignant account of someone who spent most of his (her) life being something he (she) wasn’t, and being misunderstood and hated for it (most notably by his (her) father). And even though he now has become who she really is and is happy with that, she finds herself struggling — not unlike Betty — with those who simply cannot accept that.
That is, above all else perhaps, what drives the show: the universal message that beauty comes from within, and from the confidence to be happy with who you are. While Betty herself most obviously represents this theme, if you look deeper, you’ll find it subtly tucked away in almost every storyline of the show. Some characters may directly embody that message, while others struggle towards realizing it, but it is always there. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to walk away from an episode without a smile on your face. Not only does the show give you self-consciously fun and over-the-top storylines, dynamic and wonderfully portrayed (written and acted) human characters, and a great deal of heart; it stealthily instills in you a valuable message that blossoms inside of you as you watch the show. As each episode ends, you can’t help but feel a little warmer than you did at the beginning of the show, and feel a little bit better about yourself. Even though I of course appreciate shows these days that deal with darker dramatic themes, isn’t there something nice about finishing an episode of Ugly Betty and simply feeling É well, happy? In a medium mostly used for escapism, Season One of Ugly Betty was the greatest form of escapism to be found this year: escapism with quality, heart, and value.