Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ugly Betty

We finished watching Ugly Betty the other night. We only caught a few episodes during its broadcast run, and some of those were out of order, but they were enough to interest us in watching it on DVD.

Ugly Betty (and this is the US version we're talking about: I haven't seen the original) is a great argument for the usual Japanese and British approach to TV dramas, which is to wrap things up in one season. In the US every new series wants to be the next twenty-year wonder, but not every story can be sustained that long, at least not credibly. In the case of Ugly Betty, the series really could have ended at the end of the first season. The first season was, I thought, brilliant, but the quality dropped off at a steady rate over the next three seasons. Basically they had said everything they had to say in the first couple dozen episodes, and after that it was just repetition and variation.

So while I found episodes in every season that I loved - my favorite episode of all might have been the second-to-last of the whole show, when Betty's nephew comes out to his family - I can't help wistfully imagining what it would have been like had the producers just ended it after season 1 - had they planned it to end then, not on a cliffhanger but on a final note. I'm sure it would have been much more artistically satisfying.

Quibbles. For a while there it was the best thing on, I think. In some ways it was mining tried-and-true themes - uptown vs. downtown, working class vs. upper class, innocence vs. experience. And in some ways it was cashing in on the zeitgeist (it was Devil Wears Prada meets Sex in the City, right?). But to all of this it added storylines that I thought it took cast-iron balls to bring into network TV in America in the '00s: Betty's father's immigration status, the exploitative behavior of his caseworker, not to mention Betty's nephew's sexuality, Daniel's brother's transsexuality, and of course the whole question of Betty's appearance. And it pulled it off with ace casting, true performances, and crack writing.

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