'Ugly Betty' succeeds in depicting characters, at the office and home, who actually care about each other - even if that sometimes means having to tamper with their brakes
By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
If I ever get my own assistant, I hope she's just like Betty Suarez. And I hope our fellow coworkers are as zany a cast as those on Ugly Betty, now in its second season. Betty will do anything for her boss Daniel who's struggling to stay at the top of Mode fashion magazine in his battle with his sister-who-used-to-be-his-brother Alexis (Rebecca Romijn). And that includes making sure the over-sexed and sometimes drugged-out Daniel doesn't get into too much trouble - a full-time job in itself.
Betty's willingness to stand up for what's right and the absolutely wild supporting cast make the show easy to enjoy. In an era of office space comedies, this one (based on a Colombian telenovela with dozens of versions around the world, including one in Hebrew) is a charmer.
It's not that Betty's just a good girl from Queens - my hometown - trying to do the best by her boss and save the magazine from the clutches of Wilhemina (the superb Vanessa Williams), who's about to marry Bradford, the magazine's owner. It's that the willingness of the series to go anywhere for a laugh.
The name of the men's club where Betty's sister Hilda works surreptitiously is High Beams. It's also the touching but funny moments, like when Hilda's gay but culture vulture son Justin sells his original Ethel Merman Playbill ("Don't even come in here if you don't have Spamalot," another member of the unusual collection club chillingly says) to help his mom get her own hairstyling gig.
You definitely need a scorecard to keep track of all the characters. But rising above the flock are Emmy winner America Ferrera as Betty; Becki Newman as Amanda, the crazy receptionist, secret daughter of one of Bradford's mistresses, who had a short career as a porn star and is known to chase a Prada shoe down a hallway; Judith Light (Who's the Boss) as Claire, the scorned ex-wife who's just busted out of jail; and, Wilhemina's gay assistant Marc (Michael Urie), who's got more wiggles than a bowl of Jello and somehow manages to keep the Vesuvius that is Wilhemina under control.
If it all sounds like Soap with a mixture of comedy and drama - there are definite parallels. And there is an essential sweetness to this program that runs through most of the characters. Even a stare from Wilhemina can inspire fear in Marc, causing his eyeballs and shoulders to go goofy - though he knows how to push her buttons, too.
The show's heart is reflected in the family scenes at the Suarez home. In one, Betty consoles her sister Hilda after Santos, Justin's dad and the man Hilda would have married, was killed in a convenience store hold-up while, Justin was onstage co-starring in his school production of West Side Story.
This is just another example of Ugly Betty using music to mix in pathos with the laughter.
It's a rare show where a guy like Henry Grubstick, the dull office accountant, can sweep young Betty off her feet, get another woman pregnant, and still have a chance to win our heroine's heart. That romantic side of Ugly Betty just adds to the magic, which is compounded by hilarious scenes like at one of those fake Ye Olde British eateries, in which Henry lovingly fights for damsel Betty only to get knocked out, but keeps a smile on his face.
And how many programs can have its pair of star-crossed lovers, Henry and Betty, embracing in front of everyone at a Broadway production of Wicked?
So, will Betty end up with Henry? After all, Wilhemina and Bradford tied the knot. There are dozens more plot twists and a ton of office intrigue - we've only caught a few of the several dozen episodes. But even if you miss one, this series grabs you. For all its wild ideas, Ugly Betty tugs at the heartstrings and makes us laugh at the same time.
For anyone who's had a bad day at the office, spending an evening with a secretary who's got bad braces and glasses but a loving soul is a worthwhile experience, no matter what your boss did to you that day.
Ugly Betty airs on Channel 3, weeknights at 8 p.m.
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