Wednesday, 11 June 2008

End Of Season Review - Ugly Betty

Ironically, Ugly Betty, a show about fashion, appears to have been deemed by the hipster douchebag massive to be utterly unfashionable. No longer attracting the torrent of column inches it once did, nor as many articles about how groundbreaking it is to have a major primetime network show have a Hispanic female lead, the show has had to contend with that most galling of fates for a show that was once the hottest thing around; being taken for granted. In the UK, it's gotten so bad that C4 have delayed its return just so it can show hour after hour of horrible, tacky, stupid displays of unappealing bad behaviour, featuring a cast of blithering fuckwits, hopping from bed to bed, making fools of themselves and only getting a tarnished reputation into the bargain (I know, I said I wouldn't go on about Dirty Sexy Money again, but I'm seriously pissed about Betty's shunning).

After being accepted by the mainstream in its first season, winning awards and magazine covers and the love of even the most fashion-averse person in the world (i.e., me), the second season had the same air of early tiredness that The O.C. had after it made waves with its freshman year, though that might be a consequence of becoming part of the cultural landscape with such speed and success. Just to clarify, I don't mean that to be the insult that many others seem to. While some cultural commentators have written The O.C. off after its first season finale, we loved almost all of the second season and pretty much all of the fourth season, which was wonderfully unhinged. So Ugly Betty, after its excellent first season, had a sporadically highly entertaining second, with the odd mini-run of mediocrity, and a couple of patches of outright horror. Despite that, it was good enough to keep our interest, but we pray it doesn't have a third season to match The O.C.

Of all the shows that returned after the strike hiatus, this was the one that seemed most damaged. While pre-strike Betty had been mostly a lot of fun, when it came back it didn't seem to remember what had made the show fun in the first place. For a show that often feels like a half-spoof/half-homage to both the telenovela format it was adapted from and the endless churning plotlines of US daytime soaps, the second half of the season was disappointingly humdrum. The death of Bradford Meade (yet another onscreen heart attack for Alan Dale, matching the ones he had in The O.C. and Neighbours) triggered one last bonkers plot development, as Wilhelmina (the always excellent Vanessa Williams) extracted his sperm post-mortem, and convinced Christina to carry her and Bradford's child.

While this was pleasingly melodramatic, it regrettably gave the dreary mugging of Ashley Jensen more screentime, something that had been missing in the first half of the season. Seriously, what with her in this and Lucy Davis stinking up Reaper with her expanding bag of tics and incomprehensible line readings, there seems to be a war between the Gervais graduates to become Most Annoying UK Woman On US TV. Ladies, please call it a draw and come home. There are characters in The Bill going uncast right as we speak.

Other than that, only the relationship between Daniel and Wilhelmina's bipolar sister, Renee (played with sadly wasted gusto by Gabrielle Union), came close to generating that crazy frisson the show once had, but even that fell flat. It was transparently a contrived way to keep Wilhelmina in the same plot orbit as Daniel and the rest of the Mode staff after Bradford's widow and children finally found a reason to remove her from the magazine. This was all necessary; once Bradford had died, and Wilhelmina's duplicity had been revealed, there was no way to realistically keep her on staff before the announcement of her imminent child/heir to the Meade fortune, so she had to be removed.

It was understandable plot mechanics, but it was little fun to watch, mostly because it committed the cardinal sin of separating Marc and Amanda, whose friendship and bitchiness are our favourite thing about the show. There was a stretch of episodes where they didn't interact at all, with Marc nothing more than Wilhelmina's foil (also fun, but not in the same league as his screentime with Amanda), and Amanda chasing her real father, who for a time seemed to be Gene Simmons.

That was another problem with the latter half of the season. Although I don't have anything against stunt casting, and think it's often brilliant when done well (e.g., James Carville on 30 Rock and Carl Weathers on Arrested Development), it can also go very wrong or be totally pointless. While Simmons and Betty White worked out quite well, I'm still having nightmares about Eliza Dushku's abominable "comedic" performance, and appearances by Posh Spice (gak!), Larry King, Lindsay Lohan, and Naomi Campbell were wasted (though it was a pleasant surprise to see her appear, the jokes about Campbell's violent streak were disappointingly predictable). I guess that's the price you pay once a show you like becomes popular. All the "cool kids" want to hang out with it.

With the garish soap theatrics kept to a minimum, the show relied on the relationship dramas to keep it afloat. We'd grown to like the characters, so it seemed like a good idea, but, sadly, it was often a mistake. Hilda's flirting with Justin's high school gym teacher was meet-bland, Daniel's fling with Wilhelmina's sister served only to keep the plate containing his irresponsible libido spinning, and Marc's boyfriend Cliff mysteriously disappeared from sight as soon as they were seen trying to hire pr0n together. Come back, Cliff! Your relationship with Marc was the only one we ended up caring about!

Of course, the main relationship drama was provided by the Betty-Henry-Gio-Charlie square, a plot I had enjoyed at the start of the season. However, by the time the season finale rolled around, I was utterly bored with it. In the first season we had dreaded the onscreen arrival of Betty's first boyfriend Walter in every episode (for all time he will be known as the Ugly Betty Gupta), while at the same time hoping Henry would return to make nerdy love eyes at Betty.

This season, every appearance of Henry served to piss us off, as we saw that he was actually not good enough for Betty either. As she grows as a person, and moves towards becoming a good writer (though probably never a great one; a lovely and realistic touch in a show that often skirts the edges of absurdity), it's obvious she's holding herself back to embark on a doomed love affair with someone whose chivalrous need to do the right thing by his new child will always get in the way of their love, if it even is love by that point. We grew ever more frustrated to see Henry's vacillation and crossed priorities get in the way of Betty's happiness, at first because we felt bad for her, and eventually because we felt bad for ourselves, as the same plot returned over and over.

That said, even if we found the arc dull, we thought it featured some of the cleverest writing, directing, and acting of the whole season. At first steadfastly Team Henry, I reacted strongly and negatively to the introduction of Gio, played by Freddy Rodriguez, this time sans rubber arm. Having loved Six Feet Under, we are steadfast fans of Rodriguez, but Gio royally pissed me off with his cockiness and bravado (Canyon was more forgiving). However, with Henry's need to do the right thing often being indistinguishable from lack of backbone, by the end of the season we had washed our hands of him, thrown out our Team Henry badges, and put on Team Gio t-shirts. When, in the penultimate episode, he says to Betty, "I don't wanna be the rebound guy. I wanna be the guy," I went nuts. OMG Betty you have to marry Gio immediately!

Of course, the problem with the rise of Gio is that the battle between him and Henry was only even for about an episode, as Gio's rise mirrored Henry's fall. By the time Henry turned up at Betty's doorstep to ask him to move to Tucson, we just got mad. Gio won! Get over it! (Though it does appear prescient now.) With Charlie (Jayma Mays) turned into a hissable cartoon villain (another misstep for the show; her character worked much better when she was even vaguely sympathetic, making Henry's need for Betty even more uncomfortable and dramatic), there was no way his plan could work -- not to mention that it would wreck the show. The final shot hinted that Betty got on a plane, but to travel to Tucson with Henry, or on holiday to Rome with Gio? Or to New York, where the show will be filmed next season thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger and tax incentives.

If you've made it this far, you'll note that I have little good to say about the show. Some of the characters became neutered (Judith Light's awesome Claire Meade went from semi-unhinged bitch to kindly fairy godmother) or too unpleasant (Alexis became a humourless bully). Some plotlines disappeared entirely (Marc and Cliff's relationship, Ignatio's past crimes), or started off well and dribbled to an inconclusive stop (Justin's grief over his father's death, which had been one of the more compelling arcs of the season). As before, a lot of this could be attributed to the effects of the strike, but whereas the first season had a shockingly high quality level, some of the episodes from the second season are the worst ever. Some weeks I even wondered why I bothered watching it.

If this were any other show that means I would stop, but Ugly Betty still has flashes of brilliance, and remains one of the most consistently well directed shows on TV. Though the clunky episodes were as empty and uninspiring as the most tired examples of the genre it mocks, and even though there were some appalling promotional gaffes here and there (the blatant shout-outs to Wicked and 27 Dresses were just awful), it still held our attention to the end, and still managed to surprise and delight us often enough to make us forgive it its shortcomings. In part that's down to the great cast, with America Ferrera, Vanessa Williams, comedy genius Becki Newton and her equally brilliant BFF Michael Urie, Mark Indelicato, and (when he has something to do) Tony Plana taking most of the honours. I'd watch the show just to see them all at work, no matter how crappy things get.

Plus, even at its worst it kept its good-hearted tone, which counts in its favour. Though many of the characters are snide, the show itself totally sincere in its klaxon-loud appeals to good nature and honesty, a trait I find myself continually happified by, even though I'm the archetypal grouch. A disappointment, then, but by no means a failure. I do hope next season heralds a real return to form, though that shooting relocation does make one wonder whether the tone of the show will change. One thing is for certain. Unless it suddenly became implausibly awesome as soon as I stopped watching it, Dirty Sexy Money will always be in its shadow, a poor imitation of glossy, soapy entertainment, empty and lunk-headed and mechanical. It's not fit to lick Betty's unattractive shoes.

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