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`Ugly's' many attractions

September 28, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"UGLY Betty" tells the story of Betty Suarez (America Ferrera), a bright, eager young Mexican American from Queens who is hired by Bradford Meade (Alan Dale), the head of a great publishing empire, to be the assistant to his callow playboy son Daniel (Eric Mabius), the new editor in chief of the fashion magazine Mode -- because, the father reasons, she is too unattractive for the son to want to sleep with. To the son's dismay, of course. And so begins one of the season's best new shows.

You can't exactly call it original, given that it's based on a Colombian telenovela, "Yo Soy Betty, la Fea," that has already spawned versions in India, Israel, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, Spain and Mexico ("La Fea Mas Bella," running here currently on Univision). But it's not like anything else on the U.S. network schedule.

Premiering tonight on ABC -- which moved the series from the scheduling Siberia of Friday night to the warm sandy beaches of Thursday, as fitting penance for having created "Extreme Makeover," I like to think -- this is one of those happy occasions when all the many people it takes to make a television show seem to understand it in the same way: Each element of the production supports every other element, so that the characters seem immediately real in a real world. Not the real world that we live in, to be sure, but as an old Astaire and Rogers film might offer a vision of London or Manhattan or Venice, true only to our dreams and desires. And this is no easy trick: It's easier to cook a hamburger -- and there is a lot of hamburger on television -- than it is to make a souffle.

Set in the enchanted and dangerous forest of New York publishing and fashion, peopled with characters who are obviously good or evidently evil, it has the power and sweetness of a fairy tale; but it isn't exactly the Cinderella story it first seems. It is more emancipated than that. Betty is also Dorothy gone over the rainbow -- though all the color is back home in Queens, where she lives with her loving father (Tony Plana), sassy sister (Ana Ortiz) and budding fashionista nephew (Mark Indelicato), while the offices of Mode are largely white and icy blue, designed with the clean, curving and slightly antiseptic lines of a 1960s vision of the future.

As the magazine's creative director Wilhelmina, frostily furious at having been denied the editor's job, Vanessa Williams is every inch the evil queen and comes with her own Magic Mirror/Flying Monkey, the obsequious and ironic Marc (Michael Urie), who does her dark errands and administers her Botox injections. Ashley Jensen plays a fairy godmother figure, a Mode wardrobe mistress who looks out for Betty. And Daniel is the charming prince, but only sort of.

This is not "Working Girl," though it repeats that film's Manhattan versus the Boroughs dialectic, nor "The Devil Wears Prada," though it also concerns an unfashionable person coming to work at a fashion magazine. Betty, though she is not what walks down the runways of Milan and Paris (and is sometimes shot in a way that emphasizes her wideness), is neither a frump nor a mouse for technicians or magicians to make over -- she's a ray of sunshine, a whole sunrise, bursting with color, face lighted up by a wide smile doubly gleaming for the braces splayed across her perfectly white teeth. When she tells herself "You are an attractive, intelligent, confident businesswoman," she is only reminding herself of what she already believes.

It's something of a relief, really, that Daniel and Betty are so clearly destined to be friends and collaborators rather than to fall in love, as usually happens in these things. Both are new at what they do, are expected to fail, and are eager to prove themselves, and both are mightily conspired against: Betty by the co-workers who shun her in the cafeteria and play cruel tricks on the stuffed bunny on her desk, and most cruelly by receptionist Amanda (a deliciously catlike Becki Newton), who craves her job; and Daniel by Wilhelmina and powers as yet unrevealed.

Romance would betray these characters and the beauty-is-skin-deep message of the show -- "fantasy" doesn't mean that anything can happen, there are still rules. Indeed, Daniel is in no important respect Betty's equal; if anything, she's transforming him, making him into a better person. And Betty already has a boyfriend (Kevin Sussman).

Although there is something undoubtedly potent in the DNA of this show -- we all want to be seen for who we are, behind our heavy brows, bad hair, thick glasses, or whatever else we imagine obscures our true, good qualities -- Ferrera, who starred in "Real Women Have Curves" and, out of costume, takes a glamour shot as well as any young Hollywood actress, is certainly what makes this version go. It's a sparkling performance of a many-faceted character -- a girlfriend, daughter, sister, aunt, helper and heroine, on a journey not to the prince's castle but someplace she can call her own.


'Ugly Betty'

Where: ABC

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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