America Ferrara is just a wisp of a thing, which makes it all the more remarkable that this whimsical new drama fits so neatly on her shoulders. Unspectacular in every other way, this adaptation of a popular Spanish telenovela — liberally adorned with swatches of “The Devil Wears Prada” — rises above the norm almost entirely on Ferrara’s winsome, winning portrayal of an duckling treading water amid fashion snobs. Pairing “Ugly Betty” with “Grey’s Anatomy” raises expectations, but the series will still need all Betty’s charms to survive an hour as cutthroat as her work environs.
Although derived from “Betty La Fea,” the series’ influences reach far and wide, from the rooting element of “Working Girl” to “Mean Girls” to the milieu of “Boomerang,” down to a wacky, Italian-spouting fashion diva played in the premiere by Gina Gershon. Throughout, there’s a sweet, storybook quality to Betty’s underdog status that clashes, sometimes awkwardly, with an overly broad comedic tone.
Dismissed initially by Meade Publications because she doesn’t fit the snooty mag’s image, Betty Suarez (Ferrara) is recruited to become assistant to the newly anointed editor in chief, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius). Daniel’s father Bradford (Alan Dale) is grooming his womanizing son for bigger things, but he’s grown tired of seeing him bed minions and decides to deprive him of further temptation. (The show opens with a moment even the less-than-prudish might find moderately shocking and offensive at 8 o’clock, as a young woman comes clambering out from under Daniel’s desk.)
Daniel can’t fire Betty, so he decides to humiliate her, hoping she’ll quit. It’s all designed to build sympathy for our surprisingly plucky heroine, though it doesn’t do much to humanize her boss, who could use the help.
Betty draws sustenance from her family, living with her dad (Tony Plana) and sister (Ana Ortiz). She also befriends another outcast at work (Ashley Jensen, from HBO’s “Extras”), and slowly begins to prove her value to Daniel, who’s in a corporate power struggle with Wilhemina (Vanessa Williams), another insider at the magazine determined to sabotage him.
Perhaps a little youngish for the part, Ferrara — best known for “Real Women Have Curves” — is consistently endearing, bringing heart and soul to a character that could easily be a cartoon. Too bad that doesn’t extend to the rest of the series, which oscillates from screwball comedy (with Wilhemina’s toadie assistant rubbing her feet and Botox-ing her brow) to florid soap elements, among them a mystery woman conspiring against the Meades.
Creatively, the episodic trick will be to prevent the show from becoming too silly or repetitive as Betty snatches victory from the jaws of defeat vs. Williams’ live-action Natasha Fatale — a legitimate concern after a second hour that largely mirrors the first.
Exec producer Salma Hayek makes a cheeky cameo within the telenovelas regularly watched in the Suarez home, which coyly demonstrate the marketing trick “Betty” is trying to master — straddling the mainstream while tapping into the growing Hispanic market. Certainly, the program strikes a universal chord about inner beauty, and it has the benefit of showcasing a real talent find — albeit one hidden beneath braces, goofy glasses and oversized eyebrows.
From that perspective, whatever “Ugly Betty’s” ultimate fate, it’s going to be fun to watch America discover America.