[06/15/06 - 12:00 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Ugly Betty" (ABC)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Please note: As a courtesy, please do not reproduce these comments to newsgroups, forums or other online places. Links only please.

With the official start of the 2006-07 season less than three months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month or so previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at one of the 39 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.

There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entry:

(Fridays at 8:00/7:00c this fall)

The network's description: "In the superficial world of high fashion, image is everything. Styles come and go, and the only constants are the wafer-thin beauties who wear them. How can an ordinary girl -- a slightly plump plain-Jane from Queens -- possibly fit in? If you took a moment to get to know Betty Suarez, you'd see how sweet, intelligent and hard-working she is. But few people do because, in the world of fashion, Betty is the oversized square peg in the petite round hole. When publishing mogul Bradford Meade hands the reigns of his fashion magazine, Mode, over to his son, Daniel, he specifically hires Betty as his son's new assistant - mostly because she's the only woman in NYC Daniel won't sleep with. Though this "player" is reluctant to accept her at first, Betty's indomitable spirit and bright ideas will eventually win him over. Neither of them really knows the ins and outs of the fashion world, but the two of them are a formidable team against the label-wearing sharks who will do anything to see them fail. Executive producers Salma Hayek and Silvio Horta, the creator of "Urban Legend," bring the Latino television phenomenon to an English-speaking audience. America Ferrera ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") and Eric Mabius ("The L Word") are the "Working Girl" couple who tackle the colorful, cutthroat world of fashion head on."

What did they leave out: Executive producer Salma Hayek makes a cameo as an over-the-top Mexican soap star in a running gag.

The plot in a nutshell: Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) has always dreamed of working in the publishing world. But when her interview with Meade Publishing tanks (it seems there's no place for the non-thin, non-beautiful in said world), she begins to wonder if she'll forever be stuck living with her father Ignacio (Tony Plana) and selling products over the phone like her sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz). As luck would have it though, Bradford Meade (Alan Dale) himself just happened to have spotted Betty in the lobby waiting for her interview. It seems his son Daniel (Eric Mabius) has developed a habit of sleeping with his assistants and someone like Betty might actually get him to focus on his work, which includes taking over Meade's fashion magazine, Mode. And so Betty is hired, much to Daniel's chagrin. There, in addition to an endless parade of stares and whispers behind her back, she meets Amanda (Becki Newton), the magazine's receptionist (who's more than willing to become Daniel's latest conquest/assistant), and Wilhelmina (Vanessa L. Williams), a former model who's waiting for Daniel to fail so she can take over. The only friendly face is Christina (Ashley Jensen), a seamstress that knows all too well what Betty is going through. Anyway, Daniel gets the bright idea that if he makes Betty's life miserable enough, she'll quit and life can return to normal. The plot then quickly churns through the "Cliche-O-Tron 3000" (TM pending) as she takes the abuse long enough for Daniel to start to feel guilty about it, not to mention begin to listen to her ideas, ideas which happen to impress his first issue's cover girl (an almost unrecognizable Gina Gershon), all despite Wilhelmina's scheming.

What works: You know how every year there's one show that makes you wonder "how the hell did this get made?" Well, this is that show.

What doesn't: I was literally speechless after watching the pilot. I don't even know where to begin. I guess let's just start with Betty. Not content enough to just make her "plain," she's saddled with giant silver braces, giant Coke-bottle glasses and the worst fashion sense imaginable. It's literally like she's wearing a Halloween costume - which would be fine I suppose if this was some sort of campy, goofy show, but it's not. Everything is played extremely straight. And not only is she portrayed as this bull in the fashion world's china shop, she's a rampaging one at that. She doesn't just interrupt a meeting, she literally grinds it to a halt with her behavior. And it's this characterization that makes the "feel bad for her" aspect of the show a much harder pill to swallow - especially when she's more than willing to sell our her family (she misses her father's birthday to do one of Daniel's outrageous tasks) to keep her job. And that's not even factoring in the simple fact that she's not funny or all that charming. Her only redeeming quality is supposedly her intelligence, which is limited to writing a proposal and putting it in a high school report binder. Again, this wouldn't be so bad if it weren't played so absolutely straight faced. The strange part is there's some campy, goofy seeds around her - Wilhelmina's obsession with being young is played up comically as is the outrageousness of Gershon's character. Unfortunately they don't spill over into the central plot. Overall, I'm just... wow, words escape me.

The challenges ahead: Does ABC really think this show will create any sort of beachhead on Friday nights?

  [june 2006]  


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