When “Ugly Betty” debuted in September, critics (including Variety’s Brian Lowry) likened it to “The Devil Wears Prada,” questioning whether the show could find its own identity. Then came the soap, and plenty of it, to wash those doubts right out of everyone’s mind: a dastardly murder, deportation threats, Salma Hayek popping up to tame and dump Betty’s boss, even the resurrection of a long-lost brother — as a woman.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that “Ugly Betty” has only been on the air for a single season, but that’s the beauty of adapting a telenovela to primetime: The format gave showrunner Silvio Horta and his fellow producers a chance to squeeze four seasons’ worth of plot into 23 episodes.
“There’s so many balls in the air, when you go in to see the writers’ room, the diagram on the wall looks like brain surgery,” jokes Eric Mabius, who plays Daniel Meade, a boss who, unlike “Devil’s” Miranda Priestly, seems to appreciate a good assistant. Horta’s job, among other things, is to ensure that Daniel never runs out of reasons to need her help.
“The format allows us to go so many different places,” Horta says, “but you always start with Betty. She’s trying so hard to be good and do the right thing in this world that is constantly pushing her in the direction not to.”
Along the way, the show has created prominent roles for Hispanic, gay and transsexual characters, somehow finding a way to balance outrageous situations with genuine emotions. “The comedy makes it easier to swallow and accept these characters that Middle America may have a hard time opening their arms to,” Horta explains.
The key, according to everyone involved, came in casting America Ferrera as Betty. “She’s so real that it actually gave us the latitude to push things campier and sillier,” says Richard Shepard, who directed the pilot. “If Hilary doesn’t get elected, America will be the first woman president of the United States.”
Funniest episode: In “Lose the Boss,” a taxi strands Wilhemina (Vanessa Williams) and her assistant in Queens. “Oliver Goldstick, who wrote that particular episode, was watching ‘Survivor,’ and he said, ‘What would Wilhemina do if she were stuck in the middle of nowhere with no money or cell phone or anything?'” Williams explains.
Funniest character: Mark Indelicato as Betty’s 12-year-old nephew Justin — he possesses all the traits she lacks, from fashion sense to flair.
Funniest line: “Well, word of advice,” offers Betty’s rival Amanda (Becki Newton). “You may want to take the Betty-wear down just a notch. The human pinata look may be all the rage in Queens, but in SoHo they’ll arrest you for crimes against humanity.”