29 January 2010

The End of Bettification

The most outrageous plot twist yet: cancellation.

Ugly Betty, Silvio Horta’s delirious adaptation of the telenovela Yo Soy Betty la Fea, has received its cancellation notice from ABC, and I blame myself. Not only has my residency in a foreign country made it difficult for me to demonstrate my loyal viewership, but I’d been meaning for several weeks to write a little essay here about how strong the show has grown in this, its fourth season. Surely if I’d written sooner, the axe would not have fallen. I apologize.

Ugly Betty made waves in its first season. Its flamboyance, its wild swings from sentimental melodrama to outrageous comedy, and its sheer gayness seemed, and probably were, like nothing we’d ever seen on American network television.

It featured a brilliant cast, led by America Ferrera, whom I’d first spotted in an independent feature film, Real Women Have Curves. Playing a zaftig teen in Los Angeles, she was a marvel of dignity, intelligence, and strength — and she more than held her own against Lupe Ontiveros, the powerhouse who played her mother. Not many young actors could do that. Moreover, Ferrera made you see and admire her character’s beauty, inside and out. When she was announced to play Betty Suarez, I knew I had to watch.

Not the first time she’s played a witch:
Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina Slater

The rest of the cast has been terrific, too, notably Vanessa Williams as the wicked Wilhelmina Slater, making only the latest improbable comeback in her career. (Really, Wilhelmina bounces back from the brink, too, but she can’t compete with Vanessa Williams.) As Wilhelmina’s adversary, Judith Light was a revelation to me. I’d seen her only when flipping past Who’s the Boss?. She turns out to be thoroughly compelling, and I’ve gone back to look at some of her other work on YouTube, astonished by her range.

Judith Light as Claire Meade:
Don’t call her Angela.

The key to success on Ugly Betty is navigating the treacherous shoals of arch verbal comedy, slapstick, and melodrama, and both Williams and Light are aces. Among the less-familiar actors, Ana Ortiz, as Betty’s bombshell sister, has proven every bit as impressive in some of the most exaggerated material.

Two other series regulars, Becky Newton and Michael Urie (from Plano, Texas!), were originally hired as one-shots, but their comedic appeal, their expert handling of some of the scripts’ cleverest lines, and their surefire chemistry meant that bubble-headed Amanda Tanen and preening Marc Saint James became the highlight of many episodes, their webisode duets funnier than much of the regular series. This was especially true during the second season, truncated by a writers’ strike, and during the third season, when the show struggled to get its groove back.*

Filthy, gorgeous: Becky Newton as Amanda

Marc has become an especially interesting character, and I’m reminded of Major James Bellamy (Simon Williams) on Upstairs, Downstairs: when that soap opera ended, we realized with something of a shock that, no matter how much we cared about Rose and Mrs. Bridges, it had been James’ story all along: his lack of preparation for and his inability to cope with the changing times. Now Marc has become the James Bellamy of Ugly Betty.

From the outset, we knew that Betty would learn to trust her heart and her intelligence, to draw strength from her core values, and to stick up for herself. And indeed, that’s what she’s done. She’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, with a Wicked Witch and lots and lots of Munchkins. But really, she hasn’t grown as a character: she will leave with the attributes she brought to the first episode. (Perhaps without the braces, though.) What we couldn’t anticipate was Marc’s struggle with shallowness and his gradual connection with his own humanity.

Michael Urie as Marc Saint James

Against all odds, Ugly Betty has become the story of Marc Saint James’ coming of age — which, when you consider that he began as little more than a cameo, is remarkable.** And though for a while he seemed no more dimensional than Jack from Will & Grace, already, of all the characters in the show, Marc has grown the most.

We got an early signal of this direction in the first season, when he first concealed, then revealed his homosexuality in a wrenching confrontation with his mother. The scene is made all the more powerful by the fact that the mother is played by Broadway diva Patti LuPone, from whom the response “I have no interest in knowing you” would be a lethal dagger pointed at any gay man in New York. But Michael Urie plays the scene gorgeously, running a course of exasperation and pride, pleading and crumbling — and he does it mostly with his eyes. He’s a hell of an actor.

Swishy: Marc hides behind the Suarez family
to avoid coming out to his mother.
Soon, we’ll understand why.

The tipping point for that scene was an outburst from Betty’s nephew, Justin, who represents the series’ boldest gambit — so bold, in fact, that they backed away from it, downplayed it, and turned most of the gay focus onto Marc instead. Justin (played by Mark Indelicato) was supposed to be about 12 when the series began, and he was, in the appraisal of Marc Saint James’ mother, “swishy.” Actually, that’s an understatement. He’s a “fashion elf,” a (formerly) pint-sized show queen — and his family supports him unreservedly.

The show never came right out and said Justin was gay. Lately, he came right out and said he wasn’t — though nobody believed him. (Over a multi-season soap-opera story arc, you can’t tip your hand too soon. And Indelicato’s future career may hang in the balance.) But Justin had all the right attributes, and he faced many of the challenges and obstacles that I faced, when I was a kid.

“Good Morning, Baltimore” ...

In one memorable scene, also from the first season, Justin performs “Good Morning, Baltimore” from the musical Hairspray, aboard a New York subway train. Indelicato is a natural showstopper, and it’s a great number. But it was written for a girl, and as Justin, Indelicato doesn’t hold back on the mannerisms. His exuberant performance prompts an insulting response from another man on the train.

Suddenly, Justin’s estranged father — a macho hulk who previously had been totally uncomfortable with his son’s sexuality — stands up to the fool who called his kid “fairy.” The entire subway car bursts out in applause. And I burst out in tears.***

... and after.

The gay sensibility has showed up in lots of other ways on this series. The color! The fashion! The camp! Particularly once production was moved to New York City, the casting directors tapped a rich vein of legendary Broadway divas, not only LuPone, but (just off the top of my head) Bernadette Peters, Lynn Redgrave, Rita Moreno, Kristin Chenoweth, Faith Prince, Tovah Feldshuh, the Christines Ebersole and Baranski, and Williams herself, warming the hearts of every full-sized show queen. There’s even been a Golden Girl!

But ultimately, Justin will count most.

Sorry, not gay enough:
Guest star Betty White

The character of Justin Suarez is now 15. Other television shows have depicted gay kids that age (look at Glee), and in the real world (or anyway, in New York), it’s not unusual for 15-year-olds to know and to say who they are. In the home stretch now, I’m hoping that Ugly Betty follows through on the trail it blazed. And I wish that I could say “confident” instead of “hoping.”

As at least one earlier essay — on thirtysomething — doubtless made clear, I do take certain TV shows seriously, and I’ve probably devoted too much thought to this one. But for much of its four seasons, when it was at the top of its game, Ugly Betty has made me laugh out loud, and it brought the occasional tear to my eye. I admired its use of language and its actors. And every now and then, I saw myself.

Not great art, perhaps, but smart and worthwhile. I’m sorry to see it go.

Adiós, amiga.

*NOTE: Because the only way to satirize a soap opera is to outdo it in its outrageousness, after a while it must grow difficult to keep ratcheting up the plot. A lot of the writing suffered, but the Amanda and Marc webisodes were pure, giddy fun.

**As a writer, I’ve sometimes found myself sitting back and letting the characters take over the story, and I suspect Silvio Horta experienced something similar with Marc. (It feels good when it happens, because it usually works better than anything you’d have thought of.)

***Look up the YouTube clip. The scene is even more powerful when you realize that, the next time we see Justin singing show tunes, in a school production of West Side Story, his father is being shot to death, in another part of town. In effect, Santos accepted his son — before it was too late.

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