Watching an entire television season (23 episodes) over the course of three days can be an interesting experience. Getting to see so many episodes in such a short time gives a different view of the season than watching the same 23 episodes over the course of 40 or so weeks. The dropping of some storylines, the additions of new ones, things returning from an early episode in a later one all become much more apparent. When this type of viewing takes place for a show’s first season, the changes are highlighted in even more detail. The first season of Ugly Betty, just released to DVD, provides a perfect example of this.
Starring America Ferrera as the titular Betty Suarez, the show is a classic fish-out-of-water tale that thrusts Betty, an at best average-looking Latina woman, into the world of high fashion. Betty, who has always wanted to be a writer, lands a job at MODE, a fashion magazine, as the assistant to the new Editor-in-Chief, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius).
Looked down upon by her ultra-thin (and often shallow) peers, Betty struggles to find her footing and to be accepted for who she is, and not who people think she should be. She continually butts heads with two of the funniest characters, or perhaps caricatures, on the show, the receptionist Amanda (Becky Newton) and an assistant, Marc (Michael Urie). As the season progresses, Betty proves herself over and over again, eventually winning the respect of Daniel and making a friend or two.
Alongside this story arc, the season also pushes a tale of revenge. The creative director at MODE, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), upset that she did not get the job of Editor-in-Chief upon the demise of the previous one, has aligned herself with a mysterious, bandaged woman, who is plotting to take over the corporation that owns MODE (which just happens to be owned by Daniel’s father). Making matters more complicated, Daniel’s father, Bradford (Alan Dale) was having a decades long affair with the previous Editor-in-Chief, who just happened to die in a mysterious car crash… maybe.
And then, there is Betty’s family. Her father is an illegal alien, her sister has career problems, and her nephew has a struggle with being different. Somehow, Betty is able to hold everyone and everything together.
Ferrera and the rest of the cast play up the soapy aspects of the show every chance they get, and the Suarez household is constantly watching soapy telenovelas, like the one from which Ugly Betty was adapted.
While watching all 23 episodes in such a short time provided a couple of very amusing evenings, it is only after watching several episodes in a single sitting that one ever feels like the story has progressed. Each individual episode, though they do have self-contained arcs, seems to have very little substance. However, it is possible to be engrossed enough to watch five episodes in a row barely ever glancing up at the clock.
Even so, there are several multi-episode arcs that have a false ring to them. Salma Hayek, an executive producer on the show, appears in several episodes as Sophia Reyes, the editor of a different magazine within the Meade empire. She and Daniel end up in a relationship, which the viewer knows can never actually work because she is, after all, Salma Hayek, and is not going to end up as a regular on the show. Thus, while the arc was fun at times, and it was a great pleasure to watch Salma, having it last as long as it did, with the outcome being obvious, is disappointing.
The only reason that I can fathom for having it go so long is that the producers were desperate to figure out where they wanted the Fey Sommers/mysterious bandaged woman story to end up. While initially, clearly, heading in one direction, the plotline seems to take a couple of episodes off only to head in a totally new, and I cannot imagine initially planned, direction. By placing the Sophia Reyes plotline where it is, it allowed the mysterious bandaged woman plotline to take a respite in order for it to be retooled.
This same sort of tinkering is evident as early as the “previously on” recap at the beginning of the second episode. Despite the fact that at the time this recap is seen, only the pilot episode has occurred, the recap references some crucially important scenes that impact the rest of the season and that do not occur until the end of the third episode. This must mean that at one time the scenes were supposed to air in the first episode until some retooling took place.
Even with all these little quibbles and some others, such as the repeated use of shots where characters are positioned differently than they were in the previous shot, Ugly Betty is a fun show. Whether it reinforces or eliminates stereotypes and prejudices is a long enough discussion for another column and thus not dealt with herein.
Ugly Betty – The Complete First Season features commentary tracks with Eric Mabius and Salma Hayek as well as a couple of brief behind the scenes documentaries. Additionally there are deleted scenes and some rather unfunny outtakes (the funny seems to have occurred just before the outtake in many of the clips) included for the more intrepid Betty watcher.