Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Betty La Fea (Betty the Ugly) Mas Bella Update VII

The big news of the day, of course, was that Univision's "La Fea Mas Bella," its remake of the classic "Betty La Fea," was third in the latest ratings for that whatever age demographic that has less money than older people so the networks decided they're the ones who should be sucked up to with advertising. And now that Leti has effectively been given ownership of her company by the "clever" manueverings of her boss, hero, and love ideal, the main plotline of the series has now kicked in. It's followed the path of its classic predecessor pretty well, but with enough variation for changing times (they call each other "hombre" a lot now, even the women) and for the differences in the companies so it won't surprise me much to see some deviations as it rolls along. But so far, they've been smart enough not to mess much with the original. (We'll be here to keep them in line if they do.)

Which brings me to the subject of this post, which you can see in the title. ABC, as we've noted in past posts, is planning a US version of the show, "Betty the Ugly," for the fall, and I've also mentioned concern that it won't be as faithful to "Betty." So I'll be watching the promos and notices and, when it hits on September 22, start giving it the benefit of my wise counsel, which has so benefited "La Fea Mas Bella" to this point.

My major concern with the ABC version is what I've said before: a telenovela typically runs 20-30 weeks, an hour a night 5 days a week. Do the math. That's 100-150 hours. Now, since some padding of plotlines and stories does occur to fill the time and since each new episode generally starts with a portion of the last (the length varies--usually about 5 minutes or so, although "La Madrastra" practically reran an entire episode once), you can probably cut that by 10-15%. So, 85-120 hours, say.

US tv does 22 episode seasons as a rule. See the problem? A faithful remake of "Betty" for US tv would require a 3-4 year commitment from ABC. It gave "Betty the Ugly" a 13-week commitment. Now this means that some of the secondary plots and characters that give "Betty La Fea" so much of its flavor will have to be cut or shrunken, and I don't see how this happens without hurting the show.

Example. Betty (Leti) is a brilliant but attractiveness-challenged "economista" who can't find work because of her looks, demeanor, twitches, and frightful laugh. So she ends up applying for a secretarial position with a large arty company. The hero (Armando/Fernando) has just taken charge of the company from his noble and revered father and is trying to establish his leadership. His fiance (Marcela/Marcia) wants her best friend to get the job, but he resists because the best friend is a vain pain and because, since he is something of a hound dog, she will report back to the fiance. So, showing his independence and control, he hires Betty (Leti) instead. In the ABC show, however, apparently the father doesn't want the son, a HOUND DOG, to have an attractive assistant so that's why Betty the Ugly gets hired. What took a week or so of episodes to set up and play out will only likely take the time between commercial breaks in the US series.

Why does this matter? Because the circumstances of Betty's (Leti's) hiring set up the entire show, in a couple of ways. Betty (Leti) knows the beautiful best friend is up for the job, too, yet she gets it and knows Armando/Fernando overrode objections to give to her. No man but her father has ever stood up effectively for her against the pretty people. This leads to a commitment and devotion from her that turns to love and causes her to compromise principles through actions that otherwise would have you think less of her. Second, the hero himself, a cocky but insecure, spoiled but basically decent young man trying to follow in his father's place but stumbling badly because of inexperience and self-delusion, reveals all those things in his decision to hire Betty (Leti). His story is the reverse of hers, the swan into the ugly duckling until Betty's (Leti's) love redeems him after betrayals and loss, and you need the backstory to be well understood to get those points. A 15-minute "rich dream boy meets ugly, brilliant beauty" pass at it won't get it done, yet, to do so, might take a third of the season for that alone.

So. While it's good that the "Betty" story gets to a wider audience (there have already been versions in Germany, Russia, and other countries), it's very likely to suffer in the US and risks being cancelled before it can even get interestingly underway. Still, there are two things that give me some hope.

One, the show is being produced by Salma Hayek. (Why God let His prototype for Woman walk among us in my lifetime is a Mystery I'll never solve but always appreciate--and, yes, my wife knows--she's okayed my laminated card of 5 movie stars I can sleep with and the first 4 are Salma). Salma (we're on a first-name basis--I call her "Salma" and she calls me "Vaya!!" which I believe means "Sweetie") is not only a brilliant actress and director and person but also a telenovela veteran from early in her career. She knows what they're about and seems to have a commitment to "Betty."

The other hopeful thing is the lead, America Ferrara. She got terrific reviews in "Real Women Have Curves" and was one of the better parts of "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" (don't ask). Since I watch telenovelas more than US tv, I don't recognize many of the others, although I know that guy who played Marissa's stepfather on "The O.C." (don't ask). One I do recognize is Vanessa Williams, the only true symbol of this nation ever named Miss America. I say that in a good way, actually. She proved she could act in "Soul Food," and I'm still a sucker for that song she did about the snow coming out in June or something. The one she did for "Pocahontas" will likely be our national anthem once global warming floods Central Park. (Have you seen "An Inconvenient Truth" yet????) I read somewhere that Charlotte Ross might be on board, and she's usually good. I'll be glad to see her with real work again after that Billy Banks' Tae-Bo infomercial, although it did give her a nice tummy. A lot will depend on the chemistry between "Betty" and her boss and love interest, whom I don't know. (Wait. Wasn't he in a few episodes of "The O.C."? Not that I would know that.) If they click, it could cover a lot of the holes caused by the formatting and time restraints. They may have to click a lot.

We'll watch and be your go-to place for insight and knowledge on the new show, just like we are for "La Fea Mas Bella." If Salma's hands are really on the wheel, it may be okay.

And, Salma? If you need any help, just know that you can always count on your "Vaya!!"