‘Betty’ is sweetly entertaining to the end
ABC’s “Ugly Betty’’ leaves the air tonight, after four years of family soap and haute couture. The hour, like every hour of this series, looks fabulous, from the airy Mode magazine offices with their “O’’-shaped doors and windows to the high-end clothes, all patterned with crazy, op-art motifs. “Ugly Betty’’ is a show about beauty — yes, inner beauty, but the world of outer beauty, too — and so it just better be lookin’ good.
And Betty, too, looks fantastic. No longer chained with braces, no longer Our Lady of the “Guadalajara’’ Poncho, no longer a vision of crocheted sweaters and unplucked eyebrows, Betty has become something of a babe. As she has learned about life and love, as she has discovered her power, Betty Suarez from Queens has grown increasingly glamorous. This season, her confidence has begun to speak through her fashion statements. And actress America Ferrera has finally gotten to show off her dark, warm elegance — which we’ve only seen on red carpets and in fashion magazines — for her prime time audience.
I’ve always wondered if “Ugly Betty’’ would have been more culturally potent — and, perhaps, more consistently popular — if Betty were truly unattractive. Ferrera, with the show’s makeup artists, made Betty into a librarian type who just needed to take off her clunky glasses and let her hair down to be pretty. The show, whose ratings fell steadily since the 2006 premiere, wouldn’t have been as comic, perhaps, but it might have been able to dig into the darker side — and the cruel fallout — of our obsession with physical beauty. I’m not thinking “Ugly Betty’’ should have been “Nip/Tuck,’’ the towering cautionary tale in matters of cultural obsession; but a less lite and lathery “Betty’’ could have been more interesting.
But, still, I come to praise this show as it leaves the air, tonight at 10 on Channel 5. And there is so much to praise. “Ugly Betty’’ has never been less than sweetly entertaining, and at moments, particularly during some of the culture clashes between the Suarez family and the snobs at Mode, it has been layered and dramatic. As Betty struggled to get ahead at work, she had to find a way to balance her history with her aspirations, her working-class background with her hunger to be part of the glossy magazine world. She had to hold on to her Latino-American identity as she made her way in the Manhattan mainstream. Ferrera and the writers made that journey touching.
“Ugly Betty’’ also had the distinction of being one of the most unapologetically gay hourlong shows ever on network TV. The writers never strained to build gay plotlines, they just unfolded them alongside all the other stories. Naturally, there were many gay characters in the world of fashion, notably Marc, Wilhelmina’s assistant, played as a tart sprite by Michael Urie. But “Ugly Betty’’ also gave us Betty’s nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato), a young Latino coming to terms with what we all knew from day one. Indeed, “Ugly Betty’’ dodged all kinds of Latino stereotypes during its run, not least of all the passionate man-stealing woman.
Watching tonight’s finale, I felt a pang about saying goodbye to these characters, as well as the show’s bright, campy tone. Many of the plots have gotten tired and repetitive, and it’s probably time for “Ugly Betty’’ to go; but still. Marc doing Wilhelmina’s nails while she’s in a coma; Wilhelmina and Claire, the show’s very own Alexis and Krystle, facing off; the question of love between Betty and Daniel — they’re all endearing memories, like the dazzle that continues to light Betty’s eyes, Betty’s pretty eyes, as she meets her fate head on.