Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ugly Betty: Culture Clash on Television

My favorite new show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the culture clash comedy UGLY BETTY on ABC. This show is so smartly written and well acted. And it examines culture clashing in every episode. Based on one of the famous Latin American soap operas called telenovelas, and smartly adapted for American audiences by Silvio Horta, UGLY BETTY tells the story of an imperfect looking Mexican American woman. She may be the first Hispanic female lead of a hit television series. She is chunky, but not really ugly, with braces. And she is blue collar, but smart, from the world of so many Hispanic Americans, interacting daily, through her job at MODE Magazine, with people who are mostly white and rich and think they are smarter than they really are.

Episode after episode, Betty proves to be the smart one, who helps the others out of their own messes in spite of herself. She struggles: with fitting in, with her father's medical issues, with family finances, with relationships. Real struggles every viewer can relate to. And she struggles with how to fit in and succeed in a world that by merely looking at her condemns her to failure. How many people can relate to that? I can. I have lived it. And I bet most of you have as well. How many of us have seen the superficial world around us and been skeptical? How many of us have sworn we would never be like that? That is what Ugly Betty does. That is her ugliness. Ugly only to the world that is too superficial to recognize what true beauty really is.

That's the shows brilliance. It takes someone from the margins who is so much like the rest of us and shows that she is indeed so much like us. And in turn, we share her life on the margins, we experience her world, her point of view, and we find out that the world around her is not as attractive or desirable as we though it was. We sympathize with her marginal world, and we see the world through her eyes. And if we let it, we might even change the way we think about our own lives, our own world. We might change how we think and what we do about it. And we might even become better for the effort.

We are also surprised to find that the characters we most expect to be unsympathetic are instead sympathetic. The playboy boss with the silver spoon is the most likable secondary character, outside of Betty's own family. With the exception of the English props manager, almost everyone else she works with is so superficial and self-absorbed that it is difficult to like let alone relate to them (for most of us). They have their moments, but it is Daniel Mead, the boss, who really surprises. He doesn't know what he's doing, which is why he needs Betty, and he knows it while living in constant fear that everyone else will know it too soon enough. He has made a mess of his life and wishes he could change, but he seems trapped in old patterns and demons. Underneath the fame and fortune, he's also a nice guy, who actually cares about Betty and respects her, unlike most of the others. And he gives her the opportunity to shine. He's a good boss, and one we can't help but like.

If you have not yet checked out the show before GREY'S ANATOMY, then I highly recommend you check it out. Episodes are available on as well. You can watch them completely. And every one is entertaining. But more importantly, every one makes you think. Great cast. Great writing. Great subject matter. Presented in an entertaining way. So much so you almost forget you are learning and feeling along the way. This is what great television is made of. And I hope we all continue to learn from this study in culture clashes for a long time to come.

Congratulations to Silvio Horta and Selma Hayek and their team for this fine work. And to America Ferrara for truly representing what America is all about.

For what it's worth...

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