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Ana Ortiz, America Ferrera, Thea Vidale in ABC's 'Ugly Betty.'
Ana Ortiz, America Ferrera, Thea Vidale in ABC's "Ugly Betty." (Karen Neal, ABC)
TELEVISION REVIEW

'Ugly Betty' has look of a winner

Betty Suarez is not Tyra Banks or Paris Hilton -- that is, a baton with flat hair. With her metal braces and bushy eyebrows, Betty's a ``before" with no chance of becoming an ``after." Her crocheted vest isn't ``vintage"; it's just old. She looks like mothballs smell.

And Betty is beautiful, which is the point of ``Ugly Betty." It's not a new point; we already know beauty is only skin deep, is in the eye of the beholder, is truth. But it's a point that gets audience-pleasing treatment in this winning series, tonight at 8 on Channel 5. The fascistic world of fashion is famously hollow, but still we love being reminded of that by TV as the Nicole Richies and Lindsay Lohans continue to invade our lives.

``Ugly Betty" has ``The Devil Wears Prada" and ``Working Girl" stitched into its DNA, but it is adapted by executive producer Salma Hayek from a Colombian telenovela. The premiere quickly sets up the story, as brainy Betty (America Ferrera) wins a job at a glossy New York magazine called Mode. Her presence in the Mode offices, from the kitschy baubles on her desk to the empanadas in her lunch box, defies every fashionista tenet. She even smiles, and smiling is so out. But publishing magnate Bradford Meade (Alan Dale ) has specifically hired the unattractive Betty to stop his Mode editor son, Daniel (Eric Mabius ), from his playboy ways.

Yes, Betty has been hired for her looks.

The evil force here -- the Meryl Streep from ``Prada" and the Sigourney Weaver from ``Working Girl" -- is Vanessa Williams's Wilhelmina. She lusts after Daniel's job, and she schemes like Cruella De Vil to bring him and Betty down. Devising evil plots in her office amid Botox shots and foot rubs from her toadie assistant (Michael Urie ), she embodies everything that's cynical and manipulative about the business of appearances.

If ``Ugly Betty" were a more satirical and self-conscious show, Wilhelmina would also represent the TV industry, which routinely sneers at ``ugly" women like Betty. But this is a fluffy underdog comedy, with the slightly campy soap-opera tone of ``Desperate Housewives," and its ironies only reach so far. Williams tarts up the series with dragon-lady villainy, but of course the spunky Latina from Queens is the star and she sets a generally upbeat, go-girl tone. We always know that Betty is a resilient heroine destined to win in the end, even with her fashion-backward red poncho.

America Ferrera is instantly and consistently likable as Betty. She plays out Betty's naïveté and humiliations to the hilt, such as when Betty must don a racy outfit for a fashion shoot, but she protects viewers from cringing to the point of pain. (That may have been the undoing of HBO's ``The Comeback," since Lisa Kudrow spared us none of her character's degradation.) Betty looks ridiculous stuffed into leather and thigh-high boots, but she knows that, and we know there will be a comeuppance. We can root for her, and not just feel our hearts sink into a bottomless pit.

Ferrera and ``Ugly Betty" are bound to become media darlings if the series takes off, which it undoubtedly will -- both on its own merits and with the help of the Thursday-night ``Grey's Anatomy" audience. And then it will be interesting to see if Betty slowly becomes prettier, if the show succumbs to the very superficiality it is knocking. Why is Betty drawn to Mode in the first place? A less entertaining, but similarly themed sitcom called ``Less Than Perfect" fell victim to that contradiction, as star Sara Rue glammed up and lost her appeal as a misfit.

The ``Ugly Betty" plots are a predictable string of incidents between the Wilhelmina axis of evil and the Betty-Daniel alliance. And there is a Big Mystery brewing with Daniel's father that doesn't promise much.

The real sustaining power of ``Ugly Betty" will be Ferrera and the cast. Ashley Jensen was the best thing about Ricky Gervais' s ``Extras," and she'll shine here as Betty's seamstress buddy if she can get more screen time. Ana Ortiz is a spitfire as Betty's loyal sister, and she helps make the scenes of Betty's Queens home life spark. Tony Plana grounds those scenes, as Betty's adoring widowed father. And Eric Mabius , who stood out on ``The L Word" and ``Eyes," gets a chance to show his range as the feckless editor trying to save himself despite his instincts.

With Betty at his side, he just might grow a spine, as well as a heart.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

'Ugly Betty' Photo Gallery Fall 2006 TV lineup
Take a look at some of the new shows premiering this season in an exclusive photo gallery. If you liked "Ugly Betty," check out the other new shows coming soon.
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