Friday, March 23, 2007

"I keep waiting for Mr. Roper to show up.": Ugly Betty

I've come to the conclusion that Ugly Betty is everything Desperate Housewives was purported to be in its first season and more.

The show's definitely campy (thought to be Housewives biggest saving grace). But it also has a host of great characters (somewhere where Housewives fell down outside of one or two) and genuinely amusing writing. I'm not a fan of camp, but the character writing is so humorous and specific and the one-liners so sharp that I'll forgive the show its over-the-top moments. Plus, the soap plotting on Betty is stronger too -- it's just plain more audacious than Housewives.

But Ugly Betty has a heart too. Housewives had a heart in its pilot, but it misplaced it along the way when it decided it was the world's best satire of the suburbs. Now, Betty's heart makes it sound like some sappy TGIF show -- and it threatens to fall into that pit every so often, especially when Betty makes a pep talk -- but it also knows that heart isn't always enough to make it in the world. You can be the best person ever and still have the world crap all over you. Or you can come out to your mother and have her completely reject you and cut you out of her life. (Housewives actually tried a similar plot with Bree's son, but couldn't figure out how the characters would relate to each other and I think he became a hustler or something? I kind of lost the plot on that one.) Just when you think Betty is getting too mawkish, someone undercuts the sentimentality of the moment or something devastating happens to one of the characters (think, for another example, of Justin singing the complete score to Hairspray on the subway) and the show regains its footing. One of the reasons you don't see Ugly Betty praised more in the media is that the show just doesn't seem like it's good. I go into it every week sure that I'm misremembering its quality and every week, I come out of it shocked that it was as good as advertised and sometimes better. Betty LOOKS like the kind of show that's crap, but it's not. It's really, really not. And that's probably its greatest trick of all (compare this to October Road, which looks like it should be good and is actually crap).

It should be admitted at this point that I'm a sucker for farcical plots where someone tells a lie and things gradually spin out of control, especially if the sheer number of lies is kept to a minimum (nothing's less fun than a farce where the plot grows SO unwieldy that we're always trying to keep track of it). So when Amanda got her revenge on Marc for removing her as his beard for his intolerant mother by saying that Betty was his new girlfriend, I was on board. But the way the lies then spiraled further out from that (encompassing even Justin, who thought it would be great fun to play along) kept the episode crackling, as did Patti LuPone, who fit right in with the ensemble as Marc's mother.

One of the things I liked about Betty's early episodes that has sort of been misplaced in recent, soapier episodes was that the show contrasted the glossy, soapy world of Mode magazine with Betty's home life. I understand from the Entertainment Weekly article that the producers felt the fans didn't want to see Betty's dad deal with his HMO, but the Alexis plotline completely spun the show off into the Mode world. While that was fine for a few episodes, it threatened to disrupt the balance -- Betty's sentimental streak is only believable if she has that open, perfect home life that no one at Mode ever had, and it was getting misplaced. Fortunately, this episode righted that balance again, as Marc took his mother to meet his new "girlfriend's" family. Putting him and his mom in this situation was inspired, and LuPone's finely tuned, hammy comic timing gradually brought the dinner scenes to a full boil.

The story about Daniel and Alexis competing to run Mode wasn't quite as interesting as the other stuff, but how could it be? It was all right, but the running motif and the letter voiceover at the end belabored a point that has been driven home for weeks and weeks now. And Wilhelmina deciding to seduce Bradford? That could go either way, but I'll wait a little while to see how it goes. Still, any Meade family storyline is greatly improved by the suddenly awesome Judith Light, who makes the most of any scene -- even being handcuffed to a hospital bed.

So yeah. . .good episode! Let's hope more of you watched it than Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader? (HONESTLY, America?)

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