Like much of America, Variety went crazy for Ugly Betty’s first episode. “America Ferrara is just a wisp of a thing, which makes it all the more remarkable that this whimsical new drama fits so neatly on her shoulders,” wrote Brian Lowry for the Hollywood trade. The funny thing is, he’s almost right—except there’s nothing neat about the way this high-pitched program enshrines the way minorities are subjugated to boost upper-class privilege. It’s not the show that rests on the shoulders of the very talented Ferrara’s Betty Suarez, but her boss Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), who’s made the editor-in-chief of Mode magazine by his father after the mysterious death of Fey Sommers (Elizabeth Payne), an Anna Wintour clone who’s actually alive and being primped for revenge by Mode’s vampiric creative director, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams).
The only thing easier to caricature than beauty queen pageants may be fashion magazines, and Ugly Betty thrives on the lack of imagination and contrived quirk brandied about in films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Devil Wears Prada. Betty is allowed into the Meade kingdom—another stand-in for Condé Nasty’s Castle Greyskull in Times Square—under the presumption that Daniel won’t want to fuck her. She is ugly, after all, and though he’s turned off by her appearance (enough to grossly embarrass her in an attempt to get her to quit her job), he quickly becomes endeared by the girl, much as he would by a maid who goes above and beyond the call of duty. If he forgives her for taking The Book home in episode two it’s probably for the same reason Brad Pitt, in Babel, doesn’t press charges against the nanny who almost loses his children after running the border from Mexico into California: he understands that Betty works like a pack mule and entirely for his benefit.
Ugly Betty’s nifty title sequence suggests a paper mâché project by Wes Anderson, but the rest of the show is made in the shrill image of anorexic magazines—three puff sequences for every one think moment, all photographed in cotton-candy colors and spliced together with cloying transitional elements. Worse, though, are Wilhelmina’s shadowy scenes with Fey, which adhere to Nickelodeon modes of storytelling. These sequences suggest that Daniel’s father may have been responsible for Fey’s tragic accident, which is followed closely by a fashion news program that perpetually plays on Mode’s television sets. Like Ugly Betty, this program confuses grotesquery for satire, and though the bubbling mystery about Fey’s condition and possible vengeance is bound to sustain the show for much of its first season, it brings to mind an embarrassing send-up of Inspector Gadget, with Betty as the overzealous Penny to Wilhelmina’s Dr. Claw, a sucker whose plans to take over Mode’s top spot are repeatedly foiled. Is it restraint that she doesn’t yell “Curses!” at the end of every episode?
Week in, week out, Ugly Betty subjects its audience to the same recycled crisis: Betty struggles with her appearance, her sister reminds her that the fashion industry isn’t for people like them, her obviously queer little nephew advances her sketchy ambition via his shrill passion for fashion glossies, Mode’s robotron bitches sink their teeth into the girl’s oversized insecurities, and Betty saves Daniel’s ass via some contrivance that hinges on her background. In episode two, her homemade empanadas endear her to an actress upset that Mode is going to airbrush her body, and in the third episode, she’s able to convince a photographer to work with the magazine because they are from the same barrio. In a dominion of lies, mama works to keep it real, except the baby steps Mode makes toward truth—as in representing the female body as it is—rings false. Ugly Betty’s commitment to diversity has yet to go beyond lip service.