Saturday, September 16, 2006

Cultural benchmark: Ugly Betty on ABC

As someone who was born in Colombia, South America, it's difficult to explain why a Colombian television soap opera should be the source of so much pride - but it is. In it's original incarnation "Yo Soy Betty La Fea" (which debuted in Colombia in 1,999) broke television rating records in Colombia (as it would when it was re-broadcast in the United States on Telemundo as "Betty La Fea") and marked the culmination of a period in which Colombian television was producing some of the best and most original television fare in Latin America with the exception, perhaps, of Brazil.

What distinguished Betty from the rest was the fact that it up-ended the usual Latin American television soap tropes, at least for a while, by being razor-sharp in lambasting the vacuous, greedy and self-involved world of the wealthy while making its nerdy and prat-fall prone heroine, her co-worker secretaries and her low-income family the moral center of the story. That the show did it with panache, incredible amounts of humor and a focus on narrative and character development added to its sweetness (lead writer Fernando Gaitán had to do a lot with this). Incidentally, it was also one of a number of Colombian television shows that had a leading gay character shown in a positive light despite the fact that as the lead designer for the fashion firm in which the show takes place, the character makes life hell for Betty.

The casting of beautiful actress Ana Maria Orosco as Betty betrayed an original intent of eventually succumbing to genre and making "Betty La Fea" conform to an ugly-duckling narrative and, to their credit, once the soap became as popular as it did, the writer and the producers did their best to delay the "transformation," despite polls that showed that viewers wanted Betty to remain ugly (for Halloween, little girls went out trick-or-treating dressed up as little Ugly Betties). Unfortunately, by then it was obvious that the story-lines were being stretched (possibly to cash-in to Telemundo's demands for more and more "Betty" since episodes were being shown in the United States before the soap came to an end in Colombia). In any case, a classic had been born.

Following the success of Betty, Univision stole the characters from Telemundo an produced a sequel that flopped big time. They bowdlerized the characterizations, broadened the humor by stripping away any complexity and went for the easy laugh, which included turning the gay character into a stereotypically bitchy queen stick-figure bordering on homophobic. It also began the unfortunate trend in Spanish-language television of training actors to lose their regional accents purportedly in order to appeal to a larger viewership and of drawing some of the best acting talent from Latin America to take part in mega-soap productions that draw on the worst aspects of Latin American soap operas (take the trashy but dramatically limp "Pasion de Gavilanes" on Telemundo which creates a bizarro-world cowboy environment for actors from different countries to play related family members in the middle of an overwrought feud between dynasties).

Recent re-incarnations of "Betty" haven't fared better, at least the Spanish language ones. Univision is currently showing "La Fea Mas Bella" ("The Most Beautiful Ugly One") produced by Mexico's Televisa which amps up the caricature factor and loses out on subtle humor. Though I hear that there's a version of Betty in Germany played for drama rather than humor that has been well-received. Online you can even compare the opening credits and segments of the original here (with a handy Hebrew translation), to those of the version from Spain here, Mexico here, Russia here and here, India here and here, Germany here (yes, the phenomenon is THAT wide-sperad and why the show, just like the singer Shakira, has been embraced as some sort of national symbol in Colombia).

So excuse me if I cringed when I first heard that Selma Hayek had bought rights to the soap and was producing a pilot for ABC. And things didn't necessarily look spectacular when ABC released its pilot promo reel with a crass poncho joke and with news of changes to the script that do away with Betty's camaraderie with her co-workers (even though I LOVE America Ferrera who will be playing Betty).

Surprisingly, though, the promo reel might not be all there is to it. Recently, it was announced that the first episode of "Ugly Betty" would be moved to Thursdays at 8pm (EST), just before the ABC jugger-naut "Grey's Anatomy" - based on advance buzz at pilot screenings. The show won't be debuting until September 28th but today it just got a huge advance push from the Los Angeles Times ("Ugly never looked so good" - Sept. 16, 2006) which quotes anonymous producers who have seen it as being "faithful to the original."

The Houston Voice says "The ugly news is that 'Ugly Betty' is coming, and gay viewers will love her."

The Washington Post says "A scream, a howl, a hoot and a joy, this buoyant, poignant series about a less than gorgeous young woman working for a fashion mag is the season's best and most beguiling new comedy" (they also say that ABC plans to show the debut episode online after Sept. 29th, should anyone miss it).

The Hollywood Reporter says "At first blush, it seems as if there's too much going on in 'Betty' -- the pilot plants the seeds of everything from a murder-mystery plot to a hint at a developing love triangle for Betty -- but it helps to remember that it's inspired by a telenovela, something the show does subtly by showing Betty and her family frequently watching over-the-top Spanish-language serials at their home in Queens."

Ok, so the show that was originally set in Bogota, Colombia, is now set in Queens, New York, and who can argue with that?

With so much advance praise, it's easy to set "Ugly Betty" as a show that won't live up to expectations but I really hope that it's as good as it's been reported. I also hope that the ABC version, if successful, won't jump the shark and offer a very special 'transformation' episode. America Ferrera is one beautiful woman, but PLEASE ABC, keep Betty ugly!!

UPDATE: The good, the bad and the ugly (September 29, 2006)


Unknown said...

Oh what memories, I watched the entire telenovela back in 1999, and two years ago I watched it again as the Indian version. Though my Hindi didn't help much, I also think the Indian version was very faithful and close to the original. Can't wait for the new one!

Francisco (Melvin) Rosario said...

I saw the pilot and I loved it! America Ferrara is brilliant as Betty. I can't wait to see how the show develops.