Horta transforms telenovelas for U.S.

'Ugly Betty' crosses boundaries

When Silvio Horta, 2009 recipient of Imagen’s Creative Achievement Award, burst onto the network scene in 2006 with ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” he was considered less an innovator than an explorer, returning from an uncharted country with the promise of untapped riches. That new territory was telenovelas, the massively popular Latin American format from which “Betty’s” source material (Colombian serial “Yo soy Betty, la fea”) was taken.

Three seasons later, “Betty” is still going, while other American attempts to capitalize on telenovelas have come and gone with a whimper. Adaptations like MyNetworkTV’s “Watch Over Me” (modeled after the Argentine “Resistire”) and “American Heiress” (from Mexico’s “La heredera”) faltered, while NBC’s 2006 optioning of “El cuerpo del deseo” for an English-language adaptation has yet to bear fruit, and later plans to develop a U.S. version of Colombian series “Sin tetas no hay paraiso” seem to have hit an impasse.

In retrospect, Horta’s creative vision for the series clearly amounted to far more than simply transposing the characters to American soil. By structuring the series like a traditional comedy with a continuous storyline, Horta managed to massage the possibly alienating telenovela format into something more recognizable to American audiences. And by making Betty a first-generation immigrant (whose father’s legal status is uncertain), he opened up the series to a realm of distinctly American issues of class, ethnicity and race that the source material never touched.

While Horta has collected a Golden Globe for his efforts, he now has the challenge of extending a limited-lifespan concept into its fourth season. With luck, the inventiveness that has served him thus far won’t fail him now.

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