E: If there were a single reason behind my distaste for sitcoms (there isn’t, but let’s save time and pretend there’s just one), it would probably be what I like to call embarrassment humor. Remember Larry streaking through the party that Jack, Chrissy and Suzanne threw, because someone convinced him everyone else was going to be naked? Yeah. That. I find that kind of thing excruciating – so much so that I usually can’t even be in the same room as the tv. By all rights, I should not like Ugly Betty. It’s a melodramatic telenova. It’s crazy. It deals with broad stereotypes, and an industry predicated on vanity. And it embarrasses the hell out of sweet plucky heroine Betty every single week.
And yet, I love Ugly Betty. I am captivated by story of the sunny dreamer with no advantages but her own ingenuity and determination. America Ferrara’s Betty Suarez is a joy to behold. I doubt, honestly, that there’s a more endearing character on television. And when its final episode airs tonight, I know I will be crying my little eyes out. ABC, why must you break my heart, over and over again? The Nine. Pushing Daisies. Eli Stone. And now Ugly Betty. Will the carnage never end? What’s so wrong with clever, original programming that thrills even when you don’t expect it? Even though versions of the idea have played around the world, the story of the smart, ambitious up-and-comer who lucks into a job as the assistant to a feckless fashion editor (because his father, the publisher, thinks she’s too unattractive for his son to sleep with) has felt fresh and utterly beguiling.
Why do I love Betty, and why will I miss her so? Maybe it’s because Betty triumphs over every humiliation; she positively refuses to bend to peer pressure. Is she the most unlikely hire in the history of Mode magazine? Quite possibly. Does she stand out like a sore thumb? Oh yes. She’s the girl who wears a Halloween costume to work. Make her wear a hot dog suit? Hah. Drive a motorcycle? No problem. If she can’t do it with grace or style, she’ll still do it, and whatever else you throw at her, and hold her head up through all the indignity, because she’s Betty. Because she’s so human, so well intentioned, so determined, and so intrinsically lovely no matter how many preposterous clothes and silly glasses and wigs and fake braces they put on her. Betty does her job so well that she saves her boss, Daniel, from his (mostly) well meaning mishaps, and finds a way to succeed on her own terms. And eventually, she’s won the hearts of the people trying to humiliate her. Her sense of self, and her sense of worth, is so bouyant that the slings and arrows of truly outrageous fortune can’t bring her down. And maybe because every character that starts off like a broad stereotype is not merely hilarious, but full of heart. Maybe it’s because even as stereotypes, we don’t get to see a lot of black and Latina women or gay men on tv. Maybe it’s because all these people are vivid and colorful and loud and true.
Or maybe it’s because of Vanessa Williams’ drop dead funny, regal, mostly evil schemer Wilhelmina Slater. And Michael Urie’s witty sidekick with a (spotty) conscience, Marc St. James. And Becki Newton as the outrageously vapid, spoiled, slutty Amanda Tanen. Because this show, it has characters like no other. I kind of want to cry when I remember that after tonight, we won’t see Marc and Amanda snark over Betty anymore. And how could I discuss the show and leave out the Suarez family? Betty doesn’t come from money, and she doesn’t come from ease – she comes through struggle, and she comes from love. Her protective widowed father Ignacio (Tony Plana), her hot single mom sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz) and her bubbly gay nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato, charming in a role filled with pitfalls for a young actor) ooze love and support. They don’t want her to be normal, they want her to be Betty.
Everyone who’s moved in their orbit has been pretty fantastic, like Justin’s father, and Ignacio’s girlfriend Elena. I even love the the publishing dynasty Meades, who couldn’t be more different from Betty’s clan – dim, heartfelt Daniel (Eric Mabius), Claire (a martini-dry Judith Light, who becomes a mother figure to Betty), and transgendered mystery Alexis (the striking and surprisingly funny Rebecca Romjin). Even patriarch Bradford, back in the day – I have trouble taking him seriously on Lost. No show has a supporting cast this diverse, this memorable, or this deep. I’m still grieving over Christina (I actually hoped I’d like Accidentally on Purpose, just so I could have the pleasure of watching her). And all of Betty’s boyfriends have been unique and fantastic creations. Sad sack Walter! Nerdtastic Henry! Sassy, insightful Gio! Melancholy Matt! Even when I’ve hated them, I’ve loved them all.
The thing about this show for me is the tone. How do they pull of the utterly outrageous plots? There’s little on American tv that’s as over the top as this world-wide phenomenon. It’s a cartoon with soul, somehow, and it works – Chuck and Desperate Housewives are probably the closest equivalents. There’s Glee, too, but as much as I love it, the New Directions gang is less consistent. Ugly Betty feels like actual people plunked into insane situations. The writers weave issues like gender reassignment surgery in with fashion industry politics, surprise children, alcoholism, cults, affairs, the Wall Street collapse, blogging, surrogacy (and stealing sperm from a corpse), prison break, murder attempts, immigration troubles, sexual addiction and plagiarism into a hilarious, peculiar, gorgeous tapestry. It’s truly insane.
I will say the one good thing in this mess is that Betty’s been given some time to wrap up the storylines. There’s little worse than a show that ends without preparation, without closure – without finishing its story. The producers have said they’re going for one big ball of happy. And more than anything, it strikes me that what they’re achieving is a sort of romance novel-esque career fantasy. Mark and Betty and Amanda are no longer assistants – Mark and Betty are editors (and in their fields of choice – don’t change your mind about London, Betty!), Amanda is a stylist, Christina is a successful designer, Hilda has her salon, Ignacio went from part time work in a fast food chain to a chic restaurant (and somehow manages to be home for dinner every night – that’s a fantasy for sure!).
Tonight, the remaining threads will be gathered up. Amanda will find her father. Wilhelmina will – or will not – get her just desserts. Every incarnation of Ugly Betty has ended one way – with Prince Charming Daniel realizing that Betty’s devotion to him (and eventual make-over) has made him love her, after all. I think we haven’t had enough time to make this work perfectly; Betty needs to be off on her own, needs to grow up even a bit more. I want her to explore the world! But she and Daniel have always had a special bond, and I don’t hate the idea on its own merit. I will be intrigued to see how this central plotline gets resolved.
When Betty was first hired to work the circular hallways of Mode magazine, she’s nervous. Like the heroine of The Devil Wears Prada, she’s a bit contemptuous of fashion, and the shallow pursuit of style over substance. But because she’s open and smart, Betty learns there is that there is Art in fashion, and that beauty can sometimes be found inside even the most glittering surface. And most importantly, she learns that she can change, and still be herself. She can adapt, can empathize, and exercise her ability to inspire and lead. She beats the “Mo-bots” at their own game, and makes them like it (and her) despite themselves. And my world will be a little grayer once hers goes dark tonight.