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On TV: She's Not Ugly

And Ugly Betty is nowhere near "subversive."

TV review, Nov. 24, 2006

Going by the reviews of ABC's new hit series Ugly Betty, the nicest compliment you can pay to a TV show these days is to call it subversive. Salon calls Ugly Betty "positively subversive television." The Chicago Tribune just ran a big piece headlined "The Subversive Delights of Ugly Betty." (How things have changed -- the Trib used to want subversives deported.) Out in the blogosphere they're saying it's "subversive while wading through sappy cliches," and "campy, cartoonish, and deeply subversive."

I hate to be a spoilsport, but isn't calling a network TV show "deeply subversive" kind of like calling a Fortune 500 company "deeply Marxist"? And if you were so hard up that you needed to get your subversiveness in prime time, why would you single out Ugly Betty, a show so confused and harmless it makes Laverne & Shirley look like a rush to the barricades?

The Trib reviewer, Maureen Ryan, thinks Ugly Betty is subversive because the heroine is "a curvy Hispanic woman with thick eyebrows." Ryan calls this "stunning." If that's all it takes to stun her, she must be walking around in a perpetual state of shell shock. The Salon reviewer, Rebecca Traister, thinks that Ugly Betty is subversive because of "its smart take on cultural and economic differences," which makes it part of "the very narrow pantheon of television that has explored what it's like not to be rich and/or white in America." Yeah, I can't think of any other show like that -- except My Name Is Earl . . . or Girlfriends . . . or Prison Break . . . or Hill Street Blues or the Jeffersons or the Honeymooners -- my God, even The Flintstones was about the working class.

The truth is that Ugly Betty is a wholly routine piece of TV, notable mainly for the depth of its creative cowardice. Let's start with the title: you'd think this would require a lead actress who is -- no way to be tactful here -- ugly. But the show doesn't have the nerve. Instead they've cast a perfectly attractive woman named America Ferrara and stuck her with nerd glasses and a gross set of braces. OK, that makes her hard to take in extreme goggle-eyed close-up shots, of which there are many, but so what? She's still a nice-looking person in clown drag. So then the show tries to goose the pretense that she's homely by bringing in executive producer Salma Hayek as a special guest star. But this just comes off as unsportsmanlike. It's like doing a show called "Dumb Jock" and bringing in special guest star Stephen Hawking. And having Hayek strutting around the set says "Don't worry -- we were never that serious about the ugly thing. We're all about the eye candy."

Equally fake are all the jokes about Betty's malfunctioning fashion sense. She works for a fashion magazine, but she keeps showing up at the office in insanely dorky outfits. She wears a "Welcome to Guadalahara" poncho to a staff meeting; when she needs something to wear to a chic restaurant, she digs out her high-school prom dress. How hilariously uncouth. But the show chickens out on that, too. They know that sooner or later you'll start wondering why if Betty keeps getting humiliated by the trendies she doesn't start dressing better. Rather than give up the joke, they go the other way and make her a secret fashion genius. Episode after episode, she saves the magazine by pulling together a brilliantly original layout with some fabulously cutting-edge hotshot photographer whose work she's spotted in the slush pile. If it weren't for her, Mode magazine would be as dull as Redbook. So what's with her mutant outfits? Evidently they're supposed to make her seem human and fallible -- kind of a camouflage, like those geeky suits Clark Kent wears to work at the Daily Planet.

As for the "smart take on cultural and economic differences," the show embodies one of the oldest TV cliches of all -- the one about how the working class has solid values while upper-class culture is a total sham supported only by snobbery. Betty lives in Queens, where real people have real problems in their real lives, and she works in Manhattan, an empty masquerade of status-hungry ghouls. Betty goes to a hip downtown club and -- she can't get past the velvet rope! Betty goes to a hot restaurant and -- the waiter is snotty and the food is weird! God forbid that she should find the service excellent and the food better than McDonald's; all of Queens would implode.

But Ugly Betty has impenetrably guarded itself against the remotest possibility of class envy. Its upper class is so absurd that nobody in his right mind would want to join it. It's not just that the show's version of Manhattan is a listless retread of Sex and the City and that life at Mode magazine is as ridiculously conspiratorial as a Renaissance court -- up in the corporate stratosphere things are really pretty strange. The aristocratic media barons who run the place are engaged in some kind of berserk rigamarole about family secrets, a murder that may or may not have been faked, and a guy getting buried alive in an empty coffin.

This stuff doesn't make the slightest sense and is wildly out of kilter with the rest of the show. It's also dramatically inert -- just a bunch of sinister glimpses of shadowy people having cryptic cell-phone conversations. I guess we're supposed to take this whole subplot as a postmodern comic soap opera, a la Desperate Housewives: as satirical or self-parodistic or something, without actually being funny. But all it does is scour the show clean of its last lingering traces of a point.

In every episode there are scenes where Betty is shown arguing with the HMO or trying to save her illegal-immigrant father from being deported -- you know, because she's a real person dealing with real problems, the way they do in Queens. She even has a moment of self-empowering assertiveness where she denounces her boss for not knowing how hard life is for real people like her. It's all very right-on -- except, of course, that Betty's got no idea how hard life is for her boss. He's got a ghostly woman in some sort of secret high-tech cosmetic surgery research institute sending him quasi-occult messages hinting that his father is a murderer. I think he'd give his right arm to spend a day on hold with an HMO.

The contrast doesn't make Betty's problems seem more real; instead they start to seem faintly miragelike themselves. You keep on noticing how vague the show is about several key aspects of Betty's situation -- in particular, what kind of salary she's getting as executive assistant to the editor of a major magazine. From the look of her wardrobe and her living arrangements in Queens, it's minimum wage. And if she's so ostentatiously concerned about her father's HMO, why doesn't she ever once ask her boss about the magazine's health plan? The truth is, the whole real-life-problems business is just another charade; you might as well ask how much the crew is pulling down on the starship Enterprise.

Ugly Betty tries to question mainstream standards of beauty, but it doesn't. It says it's about class and status, except it isn't. It wants to be about real people, but it's only pretending. It's supposed to be subversive TV, but it turns out to be just like regular TV. That's what's ugly about it.