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Freshman achievers

Creators of the season's most exciting new shows talk about how to get top marks with audiences -- and keep them.

May 30, 2007|Deborah Netburn | Times Staff Writer

IN A television season that largely saw shows with unlikely premises ("Knights of Prosperity," "The Nine") fail to deliver on their promise of originality, that saw Aaron Sorkin's highly touted "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" turn out to be a big buzz kill, a few gleaming gems emerged.

This handful of shows excited and inspired audiences; they dared to be different and succeeded on some level -- some became instant fodder for Internet chatter, while others are perhaps ratings challenged but have a loyal and slowly growing fan base. Will any of it be enough for an Emmy nod?

ABC's "Ugly Betty" proved that comedy can handle an hourlong format even when the heroine is only an emotional swan. "Heroes" showed us what the future of the prime-time serial might look like -- no lingering unsolved mysteries, just a bunch of good cliffhangers.

"Dexter" did the unthinkable by giving us a serial killer to root for and "Brothers & Sisters" updated the "thirtysomething" model for the new century.

And finally, the tragic dignity of "Friday Night Lights" showed us that HBO isn't the only home for critically acclaimed televised storytelling, even if viewers aren't yet swarming to it.

Here's what the creators of these outstanding freshman shows of the 2006-07 season had to say about how they stood out, and what they need to do to keep their audiences interested and moving forward.

"Ugly Betty"

The wonderful crazy whirlwind

SILVIO HORTA is the creator of "Ugly Betty," easily one of the most buzzed-about new shows of last season, but you wouldn't know it from talking to him.

"It honestly didn't hit me until after the Golden Globes that people were really loving the show," he said. "You work so incredibly hard and live in this bubble. You see the numbers but it doesn't really impact your reality until something big happens. I felt like Sally Field at the Oscars. It was shocking to me."

But who wouldn't fall in love with this bouncy show about a hard-working ugly duckling who enters the world of fashion magazines and, one full season in, still hasn't had a swanlike transformation?

"She's a fashion disaster," said "Ugly Betty" star America Ferrera of her character, "but she has the heart and intelligence to really succeed in business. And instead of the people around her changing her, she changes them."

"There is something so simple about it," Horta said. "Betty is the core. You can't help but root for her and everything else is like a souffle -- this gay, wonderful world that's fun to write for."

Horta created this particular "Ugly Betty," but he did not create the concept. The show is a remake of the Colombian telenovela "Yo Soy Betty la Fea" (which Horta watched with his mother while growing up in Miami). NBC actually started developing an American version of the show five years ago -- originally as a sitcom. Then ABC got hold of it, Salma Hayek got involved and it was re-imagined as an hourlong comedy-drama.

Horta has some concerns as "Ugly Betty" moves into its second season though. "It's scary," he said. "Season 2 is sort of make or break time of whether a show has legs." And for a show with so many twists and turns, "Ugly Betty" has the potential to be twisted out of its successful shape.

"It challenges us," said Horta. "How do you move the show forward and step this thing out in a way that doesn't feel like a different show but is still progressing the show?"


"Friday Night Lights"

The free spirit

"FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS" is a show ostensibly about football but not really at all. "I think we've been able to do a show that talks about so many basic important things -- family, faith, marriage, adolescence," show runner Jason Kadims said. "The subject matter is the town. It's never been about football."

Peter Berg, who created "Friday Night Lights" just two years after directing a film of the same name, said he never had a master plan for the show, except to allow for a loose structure both on set and in the finished product. "We were interested in making a show that is not as producer- or writer-dominated as television often is," he said. "David Milch, David Kelly and Aaron Sorkin have done great jobs, but we don't have anybody on board with that much singular talent so we have to divvy it up."

On the set of "Friday Night Lights," actors are encouraged to improvise. Directors are not treated as hired hands and writers are told to focus less on climactic events and more on smaller human moments. Everybody has a stake in the outcome and a sense of creative freedom prevails.

That freedom extends to exploring some very sad stuff in the lives of the ever-expanding cast of characters who live in a small Texas town. "I think we've done a very good job of capturing the emotional brutality we experience in life," Berg said. "It's something we try to move away from but we keep coming back to it."

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