27 March 2010

Bettydämmerung: Anticipation, Satisfaction, & Loss

Mark Indelicato as Justin Suarez, Season 1:
A kind of Neil Armstrong in American television history

Watching Ugly Betty in its final weeks has turned into an emotionally supercharged experience that has little to do with the show’s content and much to do with its cancellation. I can’t wait for each new episode — I’ve even taken to surfing the Internet to read more about upcoming intrigues and resolutions. (I’ve been taking spoilers like medicine, as if they’ll ease my withdrawal symptoms, later.) I’ve enjoyed each episode thoroughly, and I’m delighted by certain plot developments. Yet my pleasure is tempered by the knowledge that, shortly, there won’t be any more Ugly Betty. We’ll never see the all-musical episode that the show’s creator, Silvio Horta, hoped to write, or any of the other strange things that might have befallen his characters. And it’s not merely a few, fondly remembered actors from earlier seasons who won’t be coming back — soon, nobody is coming back. The gang is moving on, and we don’t know whether their new projects will entertain us.

The show’s principal cast: left to right, Vanessa Williams, Mark Indelicato, Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz, America Ferrera, Becki Newton, Eric Mabius, Judith Light, Michael Urie

The rapid course of anticipation, satisfaction, and mourning is singular in my experience, or nearly so. (That’s why I’m recording it here.) For example, I can’t compare my feelings now with those I have toward the end of a good book, that delicious pain I get when I see I have only a few more pages to spend in the company of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. And because nobody has seen the conclusion of Ugly Betty, I don’t have the reassuring reputation that generations of readers gave to Pride and Prejudice: I don’t know yet whether this story will turn out well, as that earlier romantic comedy does. (Rare is the TV show that rates so highly.) Pace, Forrest Gump, but watching the end of Ugly Betty is more like eating the last few chocolates in the box. I liked the ones that came before, but who’s to say what’s in the last one? It could be Hazelnut Creme; it could be Anthrax Ripple.

What will I do without my regular fix of Ana Ortiz fierceness?
Okay, “fierceness” is not a word I should use. I’ll stop now. Sorry.

At least Horta addressed what was for me the most important outstanding business: Betty’s 15-year-old nephew, Justin (played by Mark Indelicato), has a love interest at last, and it’s another boy. Television history has been made. (Not the first gay couple or kiss, but Justin’s age at the time the show started makes him the youngest gay character on prime-time television; arguably, he’s also the best-adjusted.) Thus far, that plot has been depicted honestly and endearingly — and without the After-School Special tropes of gay teen tragedy.

It’s not so much that Justin has come out of the closet, since he wasn’t in one to begin with. Even when he claims to have a crush on a girl, his family assumes he’s gay (which has led to some nice comedy in recent episodes). Justin’s challenge hasn’t been to proclaim who he is, but to understand what his identity means.

His So-Called Life: For Justin,
unlike other young gay characters on TV,
happiness may be a kiss away.

That more philosophical, more hopeful and less melodramatic approach, I realize now, is one reason I wanted so much for Ugly Betty to fulfill the early promise of Justin Suarez. Coming out or coming to terms with being gay is difficult and painful for so many people, but Justin represented a new generation, in a culture more accepting and above all in a family more embracing than those that came before. His sexuality wouldn’t be equated with misery, isolation, and fear: I needed to see that story played out. Maybe it’s a fairy tale (you should pardon the expression), but it’s also an important model of possibility. Other kids, Justin’s age, need that model, and former kids, who weren’t so lucky, can draw comfort from it, too. Other American families can make the possibility real, if they try.

To tell that story, to convey that message, is a powerful achievement for what is in most respects a fluffy, knockabout comedy. But I’ll take good news where I find it, and I’d have been deeply disappointed if Horta had reneged on the promises he made to his audience, the first time Justin Suarez appeared on screen.

Role model for a new generation

As Justin has evolved, he has relied increasingly on Marc Saint James (Michael Urie) for guidance, treating him as an older (gay) brother-figure. As I’ve pointed out, we got early indications that this bond might benefit Marc, as well as Justin, and in recent episodes, that theme has been developed further. Marc understands himself better now; watching Justin embark on the path of love has helped him to see his own need for affection, and his coming-of-age seems closer to realization.

In a beautifully written and delivered speech, Marc explained to Justin what it’s like when people who care for each other kiss. “If you kiss someone with feeling, they know it and you know it,” Marc said. “It’s like everything else goes gray, and you’re the only two people left in the whole world.” Thanks to that description, we knew it was the real thing when at last Justin kissed Austin, his friend from acting class (played by Ryan McGinnis): the color drained out of the background.

Michael Urie as Marc Saint James.
In the show’s moral construct, the more time you spend with the Suarez family,
the better person you become. Marc has been proving that.

Fittingly, since the boys are acting students, and since the episode title was “All the World’s a Stage,” the big moment played out onstage, like one of the scenes they and their classmates just presented in workshop. At first, Justin kept his back turned to Austin (unlikely blocking in real life, but a natural choice in acting class), until Austin said something to make him turn and face him — a typical actors’ exercise. Next came a bit of horseplay; they jostled each other as boys do who can’t put their feelings into words. Lots of subtext, with clear motivation. And then came the high point in the dramatic arc.

Justin: “You’re so in love with yourself!”

Austin: “Wouldn’t you be?”

Though it takes a moment to sink in, the question isn’t a boast, it’s an invitation: Wouldn’t you please love me? The kiss that followed was inevitable.

“You make me so good to be around.
Feeling like you should won’t get you down...

Music up, color down, history made. Hard to imagine how you’d improve that scene; had it run a little longer, I daresay we’d have seen it reenacted in drama classes around the country for years. Despite my worries, the writers, producers, director, and actors of this show recognized the significance of what they were doing, and they responded with superlative work. (And my nagging and ranting here probably had nothing to do with that.)

“...Full bliss every time, receive the sun.
It’s coming on.”
Lyrics from “Valium in the Sunshine,” the song that played under this scene.

Because this is a soap opera, we have to admit the possibility of complications. Though he’s the one who made the first move, Austin ran off after the kiss; we don’t know exactly how he’ll cope, or whether his family will be as accepting as the Suarezes are. And yet, if there’s any consolation to the fact that this plot development has come so late in the show’s run — and we won’t see Justin and Austin become a “Super Couple,” as conventional soap-opera terminology would have it* — it’s that there isn’t much time to explore any possibilities other than a happy ending.

Besides, everything went GRAY. So you just know it’s going to work out for these two. Obviously.

Marc is another story. After that speech about kissing, Justin thanked him: “I feel better now.”

“Good,” Marc replied. “And I have never felt more alone.”

Word on the Internet is that he’ll get a boyfriend before the series ends — though apparently it won’t be the guy I was rooting for. A cute, inexperienced photo-lighting assistant whom Marc met in the Bahamas, Troy was a one-night stand who wouldn’t go away. Matt Newton, the real-life brother of Becki Newton (Amanda), played him in two episodes.

Innocent Troy, the “baby duckling,” with Amanda and Marc:
A nest o’ Newtons confronts Urie.
Did somebody forget to write the scene where Marc and Troy broke up?
Too late now, I guess.

Other happy notes: the show’s casting of Broadway divas and cult actresses in cameo roles continues, with recent appearances by Carol Kane, Kathy Najimy, Donna Murphy, Lainie Kazan, and Dana Ivey. Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina has never been funnier. And Betty’s braces have come off at last.

Vanessa Williams: Her teeth were already perfect.

Now my greatest worry is that Betty (America Ferrera) will wind up with her boss, Daniel Meade (handsome but dull Eric Mabius). When the series started, their marriage seemed the ultimate goal, a consummation devoutly wished by legions of fans, and the original telenovela did end with the wedding of “Betty la Fea” and her boss. But the characters in Horta’s version have developed differently, the actors themselves are ill-matched (Ferrera is so much stronger), and pairing them off would be too easy and unimaginative. It’s not as if we have to stick around and watch them together, but still.

I’d much rather see something like the late-series episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Mary and Lou Grant go on a date and realize — ecstatically — that “it never would have worked.” What if Betty faces the future like a modern-day Mary Richards, single but turning the world on with her (braces-free) smile?

Betty and Daniel: Noooooooooo!

Or else couldn’t Horta play with our expectations (as he’s heightened them, this whole season, dancing Betty and Daniel closer and closer) and then walk away without addressing them directly? Betty’s love life isn’t the groundbreaking, history-making, potentially trend-setting plot line of this series, after all. In the context of Ugly Betty’s loopy universe, just because you introduce a gun in the first episode, it doesn’t mean you have to fire it in the last.

My second-greatest worry is this: what sort of TV trivia am I going to obsess over when this show has ended? Thank goodness for Glee.

*NOTE: On the Internet, Justin and Austin are widely known already
as “TinTin” and “Au Jus.”

1 comment:

Amy B said...

Bill, this is so well done. You've captured all the things I love and have worried about over the years with Ugly Betty. And even though I had stopped watching earlier this season, I ran back the minute I saw Au Jus on the horizon.

I guess it's good to go out on top and it looks like Ugly Betty will do that.