10 April 2010

Oh, What the Heck: Another ‘Betty’ Post

“You know you have nothing to be afraid of.”
America Ferrera (Betty) and Mark Indelicato (Justin)

Well, why not? I have decided to embrace my completely embarrassing Ugly Betty fixation, with the justification that it can’t last much longer. Perhaps the written record will be of future interest, like chamber-potsherds in an archaeological dig. Surely if I’d had a blog when thirtysomething came to the end of its run, I’d have devoted many a virtual page to a running account of the action; likewise, my even-earlier fixation on Star Trek found outlets in media from prose to drawings to that famous movie we started to shoot in seventh grade.

So — without further apology — what follows are a few observations on the waning minutes of Ugly Betty’s curious grip on my attention.

Oh, Me of Little Faith
Hardly had I lamented the disappearance of Troy (Matt Newton), the “baby duckling” boyfriend of Marc Saint James (Michael Urie, with Newton, below), than up he popped again. There was even a nice bit of comedy to excuse his absence: it seems Marc had forgotten about him for two months, remembering only when he needed a date to Hilda’s wedding that — hey — he could ask Troy! Alas, though Troy’s patience had been great (sleeping one night in front of Marc’s building because Marc “kept saying he’d be down in a minute”), it came to an end, and Marc was crushed to learn that Troy was seeing somebody else now. That non-breakup has become one of several factors that recently have forced Marc to reassess his place in the world. His character’s evolution has been fascinating.

Marc’s Hair Has Been Evolving, Too
Apparently, I’m the only person on the Internet to understand why Marc and Spencer Cannon (Bryan Batt) sported those deeply unflattering pompadours to Hilda’s wedding. It’s because Amanda styled them! Just starting her new career as a stylist, Amanda (Becki Newton, Matt’s sister) naturally wanted to make a statement. You can judge for yourself, below.

All Kinds of Divas
I’ve commented on the show’s admirable reliance on Broadway divas to fill cameo roles, but the past few episodes have seen outstanding turns from musical comedy menfolk, too, including Batt, Aaron Tveit, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The demise of Ugly Betty therefore may be the worst news to hit Broadway since Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show closed up shop.

Austin Actually Likes Justin
This isn’t at all how things worked out on My So-Called Life, to cite but one example, when Rickie (Wilson Cruz) fell for a boy. Far from the stereotypical unrequited crush, Ugly Betty’s Austin (Ryan McGinnis) initiated the first kiss with Justin (Mark Indelicato), and since then, he’s suggested their first date, bought him a bracelet, and frequently affirmed how much he wanted to spend time with him. Though this may seem a minor element of characterization, it’s turned out to be almost all we know of Austin, and it’s another way the show’s depiction of young gay life has been groundbreaking.

Coming Out All Over
Another deviation from the well-trodden path is that, when the time came, Justin didn’t deliver a Big Coming-Out Speech to his family. We’ve heard those before, of course, and although they still have value, what we got instead was perhaps more eloquent and special. Despite fortifying pep talks from Marc and Betty, Justin was still intimidated: he’d found the courage to invite his boyfriend to Hilda’s wedding, but he couldn’t quite manage the next step. He just sat there, watching the others dance.

But dammit, Justin Suarez has never been anything remotely resembling a wallflower. Taking a deep breath, he reached out his hand to Austin — and without a word, together they joined the human race.

Worthy of note: the boys exchanged their matching bracelets for nicer ones, as we saw when their hands met. (Austin’s is visible in the picture above.) It’s not quite an exchange of rings, but then, when the United States is furiously debating gay marriage, and when the show is depicting gay lovers and a straight marriage, the accessories are significant.

The Dance
We got warm-and-fuzzy reaction shots of the rest of the Suarez family when Justin and Austin spun out onto the floor. Even Daniel seemed to understand what was happening. (After all, he once tried to be a father-figure to Justin, and taught him to play basketball.) But the best response came from teary-eyed Amanda, who hugged Marc and said, “Don’t cry. It makes you look like a girl.”

Marc the Mentor
When Justin turned to Marc for advice in how to deal with his family, their conversation took place … in a closet. (The Mode wardrobe room.) Justin’s perfectly natural curiosity as to how Marc’s coming-out went served to remind viewers of that traumatic scene, which naturally lingered in Marc’s mind during the rest of the episode.

Notably, Marc had increasing difficulty separating his own experience from Justin’s, becoming flustered when he tried to persuade the Suarezes to let Justin come out at his own pace. Later, at the wedding, Hilda (Ana Ortiz) gave Marc a kiss and said, “Has anybody ever told you you’re a really good person?” Marc’s wordless expression told us that, no, in fact, nobody has told him that, least of all somebody who’s a mother. And so, as soon as Justin’s affairs were in order, Marc started to look after his own.

Ortiz and Urie

Acceptance, Suarez-Style
The penultimate episode’s comic set piece was a surprise coming-out party that Hilda and Ignacio (Tony Plana) prepared for Justin. Because of course this family is over-the-top about everything. Groom-to-be Bobby (Adam Rodriguez) had caught Justin kissing Austin and technically did keep the secret. But once Hilda figured out what was going on, nothing could stop her from celebrating — while Bobby could see that Justin would never trust him again. (If Bobby’s family really is mobbed-up, as has been suggested, then he surely knows the significance of omertà.) His motivation got lost a bit in the ensuing shuffle, as the coming-out party took on a life of its own.

Ferrera and Plana

Armed with “a starter kit” from PFLAG, Ignacio baked rainbow cookies (from which we may deduce that there were no recipes for rainbow empanadas), hung flags, distributed party favors, and in general became an overnight expert on gay life — which afforded him some of the best lines this character has ever had. “The gays like to make an entrance,” he explained helpfully, as Marc charged in to stop what he alone understood would have been the biggest humiliation of Justin’s young life.

Thereupon, we got a mini-debate, as funny as it was serious, weighing Marc’s insistence that “This isn’t about you, it’s about him” against the family’s position that anything less than complete acceptance would jeopardize Justin’s future happiness. (As of course the lack of acceptance has thwarted Marc.) Among the nice touches in this scene was a flicker of the old sparring between Marc and Betty: everybody remained in character, even when debating the issues. Yet again, we can see the care with which these last episodes have been crafted.

Why I Wasn’t Wrong to Worry Whether Justin’s Sexual Identity Would Be Addressed
Because they walked away from this story line last season! A boy at school (Randy, played by Max Ehrich, above, on the left) was bullying Justin, but turned out to be a secret musical-comedy fan, too. The boys auditioned for Billy Elliot, a real bond seemed to be forming — and we never saw Randy again. A truly intriguing plot, with all kinds of potential for socio-psychological insight (not to mention romance, comedy, and drama), was dropped without explanation.

Have the Producers and Writers Ever Watched This Show?
Speaking of “The Past Presents the Future,” how do they expect me to believe that Justin Suarez didn’t sing at his mother’s wedding?

If Mama Was Married: Hilda (Ortiz) and Bobby (Adam Rodriguez)
Rodriguez generally plays cops, but he’s displayed the kind of charm
that would work beautifully in romantic comedy —
if only anybody made the real thing anymore!

So Wilhelmina Is Human, After All?
The show’s penultimate episode wound up with a bang, albeit not quite a follow-through on the Dynasty tribute that I spotted in the previews. When Judith Light, as Claire Meade, and Vanessa Williams, as Wilhelmina Slater, got into a catfight in a wading pond, it was Krystle and Alexis all over again, yes, but the firing of a gun in a wedding episode doesn’t necessarily mean we’re back in Moldavia. I shoulda known better.

Though we may yet discover an ulterior motive behind Wilhelmina’s (apparently) taking the bullet that was (apparently) meant for Claire, what we saw was that, for all her scheming, Willi draws the line at causing her enemies physical harm. A little too late, she seems to have understood that driving Tyler (Neal Bledsoe) to drink was a bad idea; she tried to warn Claire that Tyler was on a rampage; and she stepped between the two when Tyler aimed the gun.

If only some of the earlier seasons’ boardroom machinations had been so dramatically resonant! Too often, it felt as if Willi and the Meades were playing chess; what lent those plot lines interest was Willi’s always entertaining dialogue and the awareness that, really, we didn’t know what she was capable of. For example, a standoff with Betty Suarez on a rooftop — littered with dilapidated, corpse-like mannequins — proved suspenseful because we couldn’t be certain Willi wouldn’t toss Betty over the edge.

She didn’t, of course. But curiously, it turns out to be the good-guy Meades who are liable to commit murder, whether it’s Claire bumping off Fey Sommers or Alexis hiring a hit man. And Wilhelmina may turn out to be the noble one.

Prisoner Claire with her cellmate (and, it was hinted, her lover),
played by Lorraine Toussaint, from Season 1

Betty’s Beaux
It’s now clear that Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius) is falling in love with Betty, or appreciating her on a higher level, or understanding his true feelings for her. Whatever. There’s still a chance the two won’t wind up together, and I’m still hoping Betty can do better. She’s taken a last look at the runners-up, though, reuniting briefly with Gio (Freddy Rodriguez) and Henry (Christopher Gorham). Betty’s relationship with Henry was played so much as farce that I never invested much in it, and her relationship with Gio never got off the ground, though they had an interesting dynamic. Gio needled and challenged Betty, which in itself would argue in his favor, both for dramatic purposes and for real life.

However, since considerations both of drama and of verisimilitude are moot at this point, the producers apparently ruled him out. We’re left with Prince Charming, though it’s not clear Betty wants to be Cinderella anymore.

I Understand Very Little of Contemporary American Culture
Surfing the Internet for news of and pictures from the show, I’ve had the chance to look at great quantities of “celebrity news” of people I never heard of, from shows I hesitate even to imagine. What happened to popular entertainment while I was away? I may get a lot more reading done when I move back.

The other alarming trend I’ve noticed is a possibly orchestrated campaign to write to the more mainstream websites to protest any positive coverage of the Justin–Austin plot. “I don’t want to see two boys kissing” is the kindest, politest comment from this segment of the public; the rest are much more hostile, and some irrationally so.

Get used to it: Once more, “with feeling”

That may be one reason ABC has released almost no pictures of the boys and has kept the actors away from the press. To get screen captures, I’ve had to go to gay and/or amateur fan sites; there’s still but scant information available on McGinnis, and only this week has Indelicato talked to reporters about the coming-out story line. (He granted a thoughtful, well-spoken interview to the Los Angeles Times, where, hopefully, Emmy voters and college admissions officers alike will read it.)

It’s a scary place, reality, and I guess that’s partly why the romance between two fictitious characters has seemed so sweet and so meaningful to me, salutary — and maybe even necessary.


Amy B said...

This is a lovely, thoughtful piece, and I'm so glad you wrote it. Don't feel embarrassed by your fixation! It does you proud.

I was also wondering what the hell happened to Randy!? That Billy Eliot story had a lot of heart and then BAM, where did it go? OH UGLY BETTY WRITERS.

I'm going to share this with friends.

Erica said...

I loved this episode so much.

There was a great interview NPR did with the actor who plays Marc about Ugly Betty's treatment of gay characters, including Marc's mentorship with Justin. It was pre-Justin/Austin so it didn't cover that.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks to you for making me feel a bit less silly about this.

Thanks to the Internet, I did hear the interview with Michael Urie on NPR, several weeks ago, and I found it terrific.