Thursday, August 17, 2006

Betty La Fea (Ugly Betty) Mas Bella Update XIV

Well, two steps forward, two steps back, I think. As Eduardo’s dissection of Fernando’s anomic condition and dreary future sets in and the latter’s point of no return nears with Lety in “La Fea Mas Bella,” the remake of the classic “Betty La Fea,” let’s catch up quickly on the latest with ABC’s coming version, “Ugly Betty.” Still not sure what to expect, still not comfortable with what I’m hearing.

What I’m hearing has certainly increased in volume in recent weeks. ABC liked the critical response to the show so much that it’s now moved it from its Friday slot to the same time on Thursday, leading off the evening’s fare, opposite “Earl” and others of repute. The New York Times did a nice story which would have been helped had the writer actually ever seen “Betty.” USA Today did the same. Local papers can be found on Google extolling its virtues and the star’s, America Ferrera. The “buzz,” as they say, is good.

We’ll see. Two things in particular make me think, beyond my previous misgivings, spread throughout the updates, that the “suits” have won with “Ugly Betty.” For one, the lesser evil, the news stories indicate that this Betty will only have a widowed father at home. And he will be ailing. Sorry. This is bad. Her father’s feisty health is one of the comic parts of the show, as the NY Times guy got completely wrong. But that’s not the worst of it. Betty’s/Lety’s relationship with her mother is one of the strongest points in the show(s), and jettisoning her to make this Betty somehow more devoted and self-sacrificing is cheap and unnecessary. You can see how Betty/Lety has the strength and conviction to overcome her fea-ness from the power of her parents’ love, both of them.

I can almost hear the “suits” at the meeting, though. “Well, we’re going to have the feminists and the weight-challenged all over us for making fun and extolling beauty and yada, yada. We can’t afford to get them riled over a frumpy, stay-at-home mom who’s devoted her whole life to her husband and daughter. Better pitch her over the side.” I’ve noted that time constraints will force ABC to cut secondary characters and plots, so my prescience amazes me again. But the show will suffer in comparison, no matter how much chemistry America has with her tv-dad, make that, ailing, widowed tv-dad. (Why not call it “Providence” or “Must Love Dogs”? God, the creativity in Hollywood.)

That said, those unfamiliar with the classic won’t notice the difference (which is likely the next thing the “suits” said). But the second thing they’ve done is just stupid, something only network executives are capable of. (Well, them and baseball owners.) They’ve scheduled “Ugly Betty” directly opposite “La Fea Mas Bella.” The latter, last time I saw, had over 4 million viewers a night. A built-in audience of 4 million all ready for the ABC version, and they schedule it opposite, as if the 4 million will drop an episode of an actual nightly serial to watch an iffy, probably watered down version of it that they can catch on reruns if it makes it. (Yes, I know TiVo, but ratings are off the times actually watched . . . aren’t they?) Have it start right after “La Fea” and you are a quarter of the way to a big network hit, but noooooo . . . . These genuises decide to “compete.” Well, maybe it will work a little, especially if the hype pays off. But I’ll never be convinced these losers didn’t step on their own success here. Then I remember this is the network that took off “Sports Night” and turned down “Cosby” and “All in the Family.”

Why am I not completely giving up on the show at this point? Especially after hearing also how the “suits” didn’t want America Ferrera as the star and that Salma Hayek, as a producer, had to fight to keep her? Actually, I just named the two reasons. America and Salma. In all the stories that have been coming out, it is clear that America gets “Betty” and wants her to do well, that she knows the story and how important getting “Betty” right is. We know she’s a very good actress, even if the “suits” didn’t, and that early “buzz” says she’s great in this. As for Salma, I won’t go into yet another embarrassing fit of adoration . . . sorry, had to go empty the drool cup . . . , but she also knows what needs to happen in the show, as shown by her insistence on America. The thing I like better, though, is that Salma will appear occasionally on the show in the telenovela that Betty’s dad watches, apparently as what one article called a “slap-happy maid.”

Now, I know you’re thinking, he’s just cutting it slack because he’ll get to see Salma on a regular basis, but that’s really not . . . sorry, cup again . . . what gives me hope. Not totally, anyhow. It’s the character she’s apparently playing. One of my favorite shows years ago was HBO’s “Dream On.” And one of the reasons was that I crushed on the lead male’s Latina maid, who wasn’t on nearly enough. That maid? Yes, indeedy, her first US role, I think. And now here she comes again, clearly riffing on that character, probably winking at us as she does. (Damn, the cup spilled.) Which shows just the kind of angled humor that will be necessary to pull “Ugly Betty” off. If they can pull that spirit into it with more than just Salma, they might have a chance. Only a month to go now. Time to get back to everything that’s about to happen to Fernando. It’s going to be mas fea, which is, of course, the point.