Behind her painful-looking metal braces, nerdy eyeglasses and swath of greasy hair, Betty makes an unusual leading lady for a telenovela, where the heroines are typically 50-car pileup, drop-dead gorgeous.
But viewers of "Yo Soy Betty La Fea" (I Am Betty the Ugly) don't seem to mind the break with tradition. For months now, they've been watching her triumph through her intellect and awkward determination on the Spanish-language television network Telemundo.
Homely people lust too, Betty seems to tell audiences from L.A. to New York.
As Betty's popularity continues to grow, executives at Telemundo and its much larger competitor, Univision, think that if audiences can adjust to variations on the orthodox formula of the telenovela, they might be able to take in stride a relatively new form of comedy both networks have unveiled this season: the U.S.-style sitcom.
A few years ago, the notion of capturing the chemistry of a crackling, knee-slapping prime-time sitcom on Spanish-language television seemed as preposterous as creating a telenovela around a funny, bespectacled heroine with a master's degree in economics.
Comedy on Spanish-language television relied on bells and whistles, a jovial commentator and a cluster of manic audience members. There was no clever dialogue about a fictional situation. But the Spanish-language networks saw lucrative possibilities in the sitcom, which requires a smaller production budget than a telenovela's. If the shows were successful, they could win back perhaps some of the bilingual viewers who had turned to English-language networks. A blockbuster sitcom on Univision, the country's fifth-largest television network, could begin to siphon valuable audience share from Fox, CBS, ABC or NBC in markets with large bilingual populations.
This season, using vastly different approaches to the shows' creation, Telemundo and Univision each premiered an original sitcom. " Viva Vegas!" (on Telemundo) and "Estamos Unidos" (on Univision) use the comedic shorthand that English-speaking audiences have long relied on. It will take months before either network can gauge whether these comedies will flourish. Telemundo's show is still struggling, but after six episodes, Univision's "Estamos Unidos" has drawn enough of an audience that the network is hopeful.