17 April 2010

Hasta la Vista, Betty

America the Beautiful:
By the end, she was just “Betty,”
and “there was beauty everywhere.”

So Ugly Betty has come to an end, yet the overriding sense is not of closure but of continuity: the lives of the characters go on, probably with the same richly imagined density of the lives they led before the series began. We can easily believe that we’ve been afforded a privileged view, a window onto perhaps the most dramatic four years of their lives, but not the only years. Think, for example, how much we know about Betty Suarez’s late mother, whom we never saw. What a marvel she must have been! After all, the talisman-necklace she gave to her daughter is a copy of one belonging to Anne Boleyn, and now that Betty has moved to London, I expect more people will recognize it. Yet Betty always keeps her head.

That we see the characters whole is a credit to the writers, as well as to the cast, who made us care about these frequently absurd yet always human figures, and it actually eases some of the viewer’s pains of separation and loss. It also tempers my embarrassment. Ugly Betty has represented popular art of a high order, and so I provide a few observations, now that the paint has dried and the vast canvas is framed and ready for some museum of the public mind.

I’ll have all the latest, after the jump:
Alec Mapa as gossip-monger Suzuki St. Pierre.

The Cast
Much of the fun of the show has been the sense that the people behind it were having fun, too. This is especially clear not only in the acting itself but in the attitude toward the actors, best demonstrated by the emergence of Michael Urie and Becki Newton as Marc and Amanda. Neither character was originally envisioned as a series regular, but the performers proved so irresistible — first as individuals, then as a team — that the producers and writers ran with them. To a degree, Ugly Betty was always about one facet of show business, fashion, behind the scenes; the people who put the series together appreciated genuine talent.

The series became much stronger as a result of Marc and Amanda’s byplay; more than one episode was redeemed by their high jinks. (Tellingly, however, the producers didn’t throw the whole show to them, and they didn’t take over, the way Henry Winkler’s Fonzie took over Happy Days.) I wonder whether the actors, to say nothing of the audience, realize how rare their rapport is, and how lucky they’ll be to find another colleague with whom they click so well.

All the actors are lucky, as some of them (notably Ana Ortiz) have acknowledged to the press in recent days, because Ugly Betty gave them a chance to display phenomenal range, while addressing significant themes. I came to the show with so narrow an appreciation for the two best-known members of the cast, Vanessa Williams and Judith Light, that there’s a special sweetness now to my “discovery” of them, and the knowledge that there’s really not damned much of anything these actresses can’t do.

Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina Slater.
She certainly got a lot of mileage out of her hospital gown
these past few weeks, didn’t she?

The movie Real Women Have Curves gave me a better idea of America Ferrera’s potential, and yet over four seasons she exceeded my expectations. For example, I know now that she’s a fine knockabout comedienne, whose slapstick turns are so varied that they can be categorized and rated: she’s better at running into things than she is at falling down, for example, and the final episode proved there’s nobody better at taking mud in the face. All the while, Ferrera’s Betty functioned as the anchor of the whirling plot, and even when she was the object of fun, she remained true and focused. Wonderfully attuned to other actors, she watches and listens with care (which in turn helps the viewer to watch and listen more carefully). Those aren’t flashy skills, but they’re the hallmark of really good actors.

Sister Act: Ortiz and Ferrera

A handful of the regular cast I’d never seen at all before, and it’s with similar pleasure that I anticipate the future work of Urie, Newton, Ortiz, and Mark Indelicato. It’s unlikely that any of the cast will ever get many roles that afford them comparable range, yet I’ll watch in confidence that they will rise to any opportunity.

Who’s Your Daddy?
Honestly, I found the first scene (in the show’s penultimate episode) between Amanda and Spencer Cannon to be their most successful interaction: their Romy-and-Michelle “Me, too!” discovery of shared interests and like tastes. But it’s impossible to overstate Amanda’s contribution to the success of this show, and it would have been a great shame to let her search for her father remain unexamined in the pile of discarded plots where it’s been languishing for so long. I did like the way they made up for lost time: “I forbid you to see that boy!” “I hate you, Dad!”

It’s to be noted that Spencer took the same tack with Amanda that Claire had taken with Tyler: namely, the parent doesn’t identify him or herself, gets to know the child, assesses whether stepping forward would be disruptive. Is this what’s prescribed in the current manuals for birth parents? I don’t know. It may explain part of the bond between Amanda and Tyler, though really, she wound up dating all the half-brothers but Alex/Alexis: Daniel, Tyler, and Matt. She runs in the family, you might say.

Newton: How can anybody so good-looking be so funny?

To appreciate fully Spencer’s remark that he thought he was shtupping Andy Warhol and not Fey Sommers, it helps to remember the platinum wig worn by the actress who played her. The line provoked yet another “How old is Amanda?” moment, the last in a series that began when this plot started, because if indeed she was conceived at Studio 54, the place wasn’t trendy anymore: by 1984, even I could get in there, folks, and I did, which means that fabulous celebrities must have stopped going. I guarantee you that Warhol wasn’t there the night I went, and I daresay Fey Sommers wouldn’t have been there, either. But no matter, really.

Fey at Studio 54: As Warhol once said, “Wow.”

A Disney Princess, After All
Never forget that Disney owns ABC. But that doesn’t entirely explain the “Sleeping Beauty” moment, when Connor woke Wilhelmina from her coma. Or maybe the reference was supposed to be “Snow White,” since Marc kept vigil at her bedside much as the Seven Dwarfs did for their own princess. (And I’m sure he’d have built her a crystal coffin, too, if he had the resources.) You can practically hear Dopey talking to Snow, the way Marc talks to his beloved Willi. It was a nice touch, too, to punctuate Connor’s kisses with the accelerating beeps of Wilhelmina’s heart monitor, though I don’t know what Disney classic the idea came from.

Cruella Who? Wilhelmina really wanted those puppies.
(To cuddle, as it turned out.)

One Last Dance
Betty’s farewell party at the Mode office, hijacked by Amanda to serve as a farewell to her dog, Halston, too, really resonated for this viewer. You come to work each day with other talented people, each of whom has her or his private ambitions and pursues goals that don’t always coincide with your own. Sometimes, perhaps, you’re the craven lackey of a driven boss, whom you assist in bizarre plots and corporate power struggles, and these schemes consequently isolate you from most, if not all, of your colleagues. And yet you like these people, and they don’t totally despise you, so when the moment comes and the boss isn’t around and the music is right — you dance. Exactly the way that Betty, Marc, Amanda, and Troy danced.

For as long as the song lasts, the dance is all that matters to you, and you are as happy as you will ever be in your professional life. Really.

The dance was one of many scenes that benefited from a blur between fiction and reality. Because of course America Ferrera, Michael Urie, and Becki Newton really are colleagues who have worked together for four years, and who are saying goodbye, just like the characters they’ve played. Casting Becki Newton’s brother Matt as Troy was genius, then, because presumably he’s been hanging out with the other actors, off-screen, for much of the past four years, and he’s certainly able to blend in with their chemistry — as you can see in the picture below.

What’s the Big Deal?
This week’s Justin–Austin plot was … absolutely nothing. That may have been the boldest choice of all. We saw Austin several times, always in the context of “becoming a part of this Latin family,” as he put it: at the Suarez dinner table, saying goodbye to Betty. But there was no drama; the boys were presented as a couple, like any other. This freed Justin to participate in the episode in other ways, almost all of which entailed his paying his debts to his mentors, Betty and Marc, by showing them how much he’d learned from them.

And so — in the very office where Marc first advised Justin (“Just be yourself, and learn to run really fast”) — it was Justin who advised Marc now, urging him to dance with Troy at Betty’s farewell party. The moment was earned, as we understood when Marc reached for Troy’s hand, exactly the way that Justin reached for Austin’s — and like the younger boys, Marc and Troy were wearing matching bracelets. Everything comes full circle, sometimes around your wrist.

Justin’s biggest scene took place on the very stoop where we first saw him talking to his Aunt Betty; now, he explained that her example had given him courage in his own life, and this conversation in turn helped her to move on. As one who is constantly learning from his godchildren, I found this true to my own life, and Mark Indelicato played both these scenes beautifully.

In his final scene, when the Suarezes say goodbye to Betty, we got another blurring of the distinctions between life and art. You can imagine the director didn’t really need to say to him, “Now Mark, imagine this is a grownup you care about, who’s been a role model and mentor to you, who’s been a part of your life since you were a little boy — and now you’re not going to see her every day, and maybe not for a very long time.”

Generally, I’ve taken a dim view of the Internet discussions that insist that Mark Indelicato isn’t acting, that the character is who he “really” is, yadda yadda. Much of this was a front for uninformed gossip, a means of speculating whether the actor is gay (as if that would make a difference), and incredibly stupid as conversation. Of course the kid is acting; it’s a performance. No matter what he’s like off-screen, he’s presenting a persona when he’s on-screen — speaking words written by others, in situations not of his own making. Over the years, we’ve seen that the persona is thoughtful, detailed, persuasive, and a lively dancer.

But you know those tears in his last scene with America Ferrera? I don’t think Mark Indelicato was acting. I think he’s really like that in real life.

Goodbye, Aunt Spanish. You look bonita.

I admit, I was a little squeamish when — after four years of dodging it — we finally got the explicit pop-psychology analysis of Marc’s relationship with Wilhelmina. “You’re my mother,” he said, and I replied, “Ewww.” But then I started having flashbacks to some Very Special Episodes of my own. There were times when Dan Rather reminded me a lot of my mother (true fact, though at other times he reminded me of my father, too), and there are some creepy parallels between my years at CBS and Marc’s years at Mode. As Claire Meade might tell me, maybe I was resisting for a reason.

But I had no reservations at all about the phenomenally beautiful scene in which Marc sits with Wilhelmina at the hospital, polishing her nails, chatting with her. Her coma gave him the chance to take control of their conversation, for once, which in turn probably gave him the moxie to stand up to her — and walk out on her — in a way that would have been unimaginable when the show began. Really, it would have been like Flotsam telling off Ursula the Sea Witch.

Pursuing the episode’s mini-theme of mentees becoming mentors, Wilhelmina really took Marc’s words to heart (now that we know she’s got one). Once, not long ago, she confessed to Daniel that Marc was the most important man in her life, and even the reemergence of Connor didn’t diminish her understanding that she’s always going to need Marc Saint James. When the time came, she looked into Marc’s eyes — and spoke the words that ended her mortal feud with the Meade family. I wish I could tell you that all assistants have this kind of influence on their high-powered bosses.

Wilhelmina acknowledged his worth with a promotion and a veiled but meaningful compliment: “You always know what’s right,” she said, and of course she wasn’t talking about where to put the flowers. Thus ended the curious and gratifying development of one of the most distinctive characters in television.

I think I’ll miss you most of all.
But please note that, thanks to Betty,
Marc found wisdom but also courage and a heart.

Wise Latina Women (and Men)
It’s not often that television has shown us a Latin household, or the ways in which ethnic groups do and don’t mix well, and with the exceptions of I Love Lucy and, briefly, Chico and the Man, those programs didn’t catch on with the public at large. Ratings high and ratings low, Betty remained true to its philosophy: that the application of sound Latin values to even the weirdest circumstances was the surest path to happiness. Marc’s experience proved that, as did Daniel Meade’s.

To get to that point, of course, you have to show your Latin family behaving in a way worth emulating, and the final episode gave us several such scenes: not only the embrace of Austin, and Justin’s heart-to-heart with Betty, and not only the cookout in the front yard. (Boy, do I recognize that one from the old neighborhood.)

For starters, we got one last nighttime conversation between the Suarez sisters, whose girl talk has been one of the highlights of the series, no matter the subject at hand. (Though speaking of hands, Hilda’s engagement ring provided one memorable, very funny subject.) This time, they worried about what would become of the family, when each sister pursued an independent course — a huge topic. Rather than whine or criticize each other, they supported each other, as they always have. That is lovely to see, and I don’t know where else I’d have seen it.

We also got a nifty arc for Ignacio (Tony Plana), ordinarily the least flashy role on the show. Resistant at first to Betty’s move to London, he tried to dissuade her with everything from Internet research to homemade haggis. Yet somewhere along the line, it dawned on him that Betty was doing only what he had done, years ago: moving to an unknown country to pursue his dreams. It was a short speech, yet no less truthful, and Plana delivered it with the gently restrained intensity that made it so easy to believe in Ignacio as the rock of his household.

Ultimately, the Suarez family is no more realistic than the Mode office: there are foundations in reality, perhaps, but every detail is exaggerated. The difference is that I don’t wish I worked at Mode — but I do wish I could be a Suarez.

And so perhaps does Daniel Meade. His rising interest in Betty, played out over the last few episodes, came to a head this time, not least because his mother egged him on. While he began pining for Betty, however, we realized that she’d never pined for him — at least, not lately — and as her exit interviews with ex-boyfriends Gio and Henry reminded us, she’d long since proven that she didn’t need a man to define her success or her happiness. The ease with which she walked away from Jesse the Self-Absorbed Musician (Val Emmich) and Zack the Self-Absorbed Playwright (Aaron Tveit) served to underscore that Betty was very much her own woman. Daniel simply wasn’t the goal she’d been striving to attain for four years.

Claire understood early what a catch Betty was,
but Daniel couldn’t see it until the braces came off.

On the other hand, it made perfect sense that Daniel, who’s spent those same four years getting into innumerable scrapes and waiting for Betty to rescue him, might panic at the prospect of life without her. Also, a not-inconsiderable fan base wanted to see the two get together. How to resolve the plot?

By not resolving it. Their reunion in Trafalgar Square was credibly open-ended, and most importantly, the characters approached each other as equals. That — not a wedding ring — is what Betty wanted. Now that she’s got it, who knows? We’ll have to wait for the reunion movie to find out. And yet, during that last shot of her, Betty was more like Mary Richards than I seriously dared to hope.

Beautifully Ever After
At the very least, Betty fans have the consolation of quality: the show went out with grace and strength, focused on the traits that made it special. Hell, they even gave us a “cryo-genitally” frozen dog in Betty’s fridge (which was always a trouble spot for her — remember Bradford Meade’s head?) and one last fire in the final hour. The show was the work of master artisans, and at its best, it did precisely what they designed it to do; it was never better or more effective than in these last few weeks. Like a lot of people on the Internet, I regret that Betty couldn’t hang on for one more year: there are so many plots I’d like to see explored a little further, so many characters I’d like to know a little better. But so be it. It’s been a hell of a ride.

One last look.

1 comment:

Amy B said...

"Popular art of a high order" indeed. You capture all the best bits about Betty. I'm trying not to cry, just like I tried for the finale. For all the artifice, there were so many things that were very real. Saying goodbye being one of them.

You ARE Marc and your Wilhelmina was Dan. That's not hard to believe, also kind of hilarious in retrospect. Oddly enough, a colleague of mine and I would frequently refer to ourselves as Marc and Amanda - hard as that may be for you to believe - but I have taken my Bitch 101 classes since Age 26. But I could identify with Betty, too.

All in all, a well-done show, and probably it ended at the right time. Thanks for your lovely summation.