Review: 'Ugly Betty'

By all rights, "Ugly Betty" shouldn't really work.

The new ABC series is an adaptation of a hugely popular telenovela from Colombia, but telling stories in that format is a whole lot different from telling them in a weekly series. Further, the ABC version is a tricky mix of satire, soapy mystery and genuine emotion. Throw off the balance of those elements even a little, and the whole enterprise could come crashing down.

Here's the thing, though: Thanks to smart writing a tremendously winning performance by America Ferrera ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") in the title role, "Ugly Betty" does work, really well.

The adaptation of the telenovela "Betty La Fea" tells the story of Betty Suarez (Ferrera), who lands a job as the assistant to Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius), the editor of high-end fashion magazine Mode. She gets the job, though, not because she's smart and creative (which she is), but because Daniel's dad (Alan Dale), the head of the company, figures Betty will break his son of the habit of sleeping with his assistants.

Betty faces instant resentment at work, chiefly from the uber-catty Amanda (Becki Newton), who was angling for the assistant's job (not to mention Daniel himself). You get the sense that her co-workers hate Betty a little for blocking their mad scramble up the career ladder, but more because she's not a size 2 who's up to her poorly styled bangs in debt from shopping at Prada.

Daniel, meanwhile, is dodging knives hurled at his back from the magazine's creative director, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa L. Williams, having a lot of fun playing evil), who not unjustifiably thinks she should be the editor. She has a devious plot to undermine the kid and make the magazine her own, but Betty keeps getting in the way.

The show's humor takes a little getting used to -- the pretty people at Mode are unsparingly vicious toward our heroine, who at first appears either too naive or too meek to respond. Ferrera eventually shows Betty to be a lot tougher (and more self-aware) than that, and her belief in herself is inspiring.

The bitchiness of Betty's workplace contrasts with the very sweet scenes set in the Queens home she shares with her family. Her dad (Tony Plana) and sister (Ana Ortiz) worry about the abuse she takes at work, but their pride in Betty shines through. (You can also spot executive producer Salma Hayek in the home scenes, goofing on her own early career by playing an actress in Mr. Suarez's favorite telenovela.)

"Betty's" producers have done a smart thing early on in downplaying the mystery element of the show, which involves the supposedly dead former editor of Mode. She's not, of course, and she's apparently helping Wilhelmina hatch her scheme. That bit of the show doesn't play quite as well as the rest of it.

That could be because Ferrera is off-screen for those scenes. The rest of the cast is strong (Mabius, for one, makes playboy Daniel more nuanced than you might expect), but this is absolutely Ferrera's show. She is hands-down the breakout star of the season, and above even the considerable fun of the rest of the show, she's the reason to watch.

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