Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ugly Gleanings

ABC's Ugly Betty, debuting tonight, is like the show your mother never knew she was crying out for. And that's, seriously, a compliment. A style-bending tightrope walker of a show, Betty is like chick lit writ large. It's never anything masterful, but it tastes pretty darn good and it goes down easy.

Now, to be fair, there's stuff here that doesn't work. Some of the jokes are trying a little too hard (some of the sight gags especially), and some of the characters get reduced to stereotypes (and don't seem as if they'll ever break free of them). And when you're blending this many different styles and tones, you're bound to tumble every once in a while, which Betty does from time to time.

Where the show doesn't go wrong is in the character of Betty herself, who is instantly fascinating, unlike anyone else on television. An essential optimist, Betty is beset upon by a world of troubles, a world that doesn't understand her and condescends to her. Turn the dial just a few notches to the left, and this would be something akin to the Book of Job at a fashion magazine. Turn it a few notches to the right, and it would be almost unbearably cruel comedy, like the short-lived Lisa Kudrow vehicle, The Comeback. Somehow, the show makes Betty that hardest character to pull off -- someone who struggles to make their way in a world hostile to them and never gives up. Not once do we question what Betty wants because the show and, more importantly, actress America Ferrara (wonderful here) sell it to us.

While the attempts to capture the tone of a telenovela are occasionally misdirected, this took the best thing about the original series (the central character) and left it mostly intact. It's an update that's not quite on the level of, say, All in the Family or The Office yet, but it could be on its way, and that's reason to rejoice indeed.

So if you have a mom or a daughter or something, sit them down and watch this with them. They'll probably like it even more than you do.

That means you, Mom.

Betty's the only big debut for the rest of the week, so let's get to one show I missed last night and a couple of shows I took in tonight.

I forgot that I had watched The Amazing Race the other night. The leg was generally fascinating, with interesting locations (I'd actually really like to visit Mongolia now) and some cool challenges. The teams are still fun to watch (even if the recently dating couple with the girl with the prosthetic leg is starting to frighten me by just how much they ENCOURAGE each other -- barely restrained passive aggression anyone?). Honestly, though, I think maybe cycle 10 is about the tops a reality show can go. I'm willing to have a good one prove me wrong, but once you're this far in to a reality show's run, you know roughly everything the show can throw at you. Any playing around with the rules feels strictly perfunctory, a way to throw a faithful audience off the trail. I'll stick with this Race through the end, but the show will have to add some new elements to bring me back for the 11th iteration. Perhaps they could cast me. . .

Ah, Jericho. How you pain me.

I love the genre you're set in. I love your willingness to deal with the fact that life after a nuclear war wouldn't be all perfect-society-wine-and-roses. And I love that you're also willing to do a serious riff on Alas, Babylon.

But you continue to mess things up at crucial points. This week, you turned a potentially interesting plot point (yeah. . .what ABOUT prisoners after an apocalyptic scenario) and made it into a ho-hum action thing (complete with truly awful rock guitar on the soundtrack -- no, really). Wasn't the attempt to shield the town itself from the deadly fallout headed its way an interesting enough plot complication? Did you really need that action element? In so many ways, this feels focus-grouped to death in a way that it's obvious inspiration, Lost, never does (largely because Lost's pilot was shot so chaotically, never leaving ABC time to say, "Hey. . .wait a minute").

And then you go and pull out an incredible scene like that last one, where the HAM radio operator slowly tries to make contact with other cities in the U.S., sticking a red push pin in for the cities he can't reach, methodically working his way through Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego. . .

We see the towns in close up, fingers pressing a push pin solidly into the dot for each town, until finally, we're just looking at the tray of push pins themselves, the fingers going to them again and again and again, pulling out pin after pin after pin. We don't need to see every city destroyed. We just need to see a rapidly diminishing pile of red. It's a startlingly visual way to tell us a bit of the story we've been curious about, a metaphor for all of the loss and grief and fear that would surely follow an event like a nuclear attack. Television so rarely relies entirely on visuals to convey what it wants to say that this moment arrives as a surprise -- a moment of real cinematic prowess surrounded by over-obviousness.

Jericho, more like THAT please and less like the guitar rock.

Project Runway is sending four people to its final three because the judges couldn't make the call. While I don't normally enjoy rule-bending on reality shows, it feels like a good idea this time, just because the four remaining all obviously had the requisite talent. I expect good things from all four. What I'm NOT feeling is Bravo's decision to stretch out the show's denouement over THREE WEEKS. A reunion? A two-part, three-hour finale? No thank you. Just let me see the last hour. I have other things to do.

A side note: As good as the Veronica Mars premiere that's now airing for free at is, the second episode is even better. I know a lot of you didn't like season two, but season three looks to be off to a promising start.

And how about those credits, huh?!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was a wee bit bitter when the Ugly Betty ads were a riff on The 40 Year Old Virgin's.

That said, I'll still take a peek at the show.